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Jane Bown’s “Exposures”

I had to go to London earlier this week. It’s not a journey I make often; I had my fill of commuting in the 90s and prefer to do things the easy way now – by phone.

There was an hour to kill before my appointment, so I decided to walk up York Way past Kings Cross station and visit the exhibition of Jane Bown’s photos at the Guardian office. Other British photographers – Patrick Lichfield and David Bailey, for instance – have portrayed the famous and the infamous, but none with the simplicity and lack of intrusion that Jane Bown brought, and still brings, to her work.

The exhibition celebrates sixty years of her work for the Guardian. She has written that she prefers to be commissioned than actively to seek her subjects on her own behalf. More often than not she met them in company with a reporter, and would work around them almost unnoticed while the reporter conducted the interview.

Most of my assignments, particularly in the early years, were taken with a journalist in tow. I’d be expected to grab a few minutes either before or after the interview and in this way, I learned to work quickly. … This suited me, as I prefer to stay invisible, looking and observing, working around what is there rather than orchestrating things.

But it wasn’t always so easy. Some subjects were reluctant to be photographed, others positively hostile. Samuel Beckett was one of these latter. Bown describes how she encountered him by chance in the dark, in a narrow alley beside London’s Royal Court theatre. Unable to escape, he glared into the lens while she shot a series of frames. The hostility is clear in the final print, but in my opinion the Beckett portrait is the star of the show.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown (1976) © Jane Bown, courtesy of Kings Place Gallery, London

Jane Bown began by working with a Rolleiflex medium-format camera. The square frame and the lens’s hunger for pin-sharp detail made for exquisite portraits. Her technique has always been to focus on the eyes of her subjects, allowing both background and foreground to soften. This seems to take the viewer right into the very being of the subject. At the end of the 60s she began to use an Olympus 35mm camera, much smaller and handier than the Rolleiflex. She says that the new camera allowed her to get closer to her subjects, taking them almost by surprise, and this, together with a shift of contemporary emphasis from representation to analysis, marked a discernible change in her style.

For myself, I prefer the Rollei shots. Look, for instance, at Bertrand Russell (1959), Truman Capote (1959) and the lovely Leslie Caron (also 1959). There are some portraits among the rectangular 35mm series that share the strength and insight of the earlier work – William Walton from 1986 comes to mind, as do the Beckett (1976), Michael Caine (1968) and Bridget Riley (1989*). But others – Mick Jagger (1977), David Hockney (1966) and Sinead O’Connor (1992), say – seem by comparison shallow, empty and in a way unworthy yet of perpetuation. Perhaps it’s the personalities that are out of kilter for me? Or perhaps I’m just hooked on the nostalgia of those names from my early years. You should go and see for yourself.

Jane Bown: Exposures. 100 Portraits is at the Kings Place Gallery, York Way, London N1, until November 21. Entrance is free.
Links to the exhibition and its images are no longer current. Where possible, image links have been re-directed to the TopFoto archive of Ms Bown’s work. (TopFoto represents her images for commercial licensing.)

*An earlier, square-format image of Bridget Riley can be found in the archive.

  1. January 31, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Just stumbled upon that photograph of Samuel Beckett and loved it. So haunting. thanks for sharing

    Jon Ball

  2. September 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I always admired Jane Bown’s work. After an assistantship with Clive Arrowsmith in the early 70’s my early commissions in my own right were portraits for the Times and Observer of the great and the good. A mid career spent in a haze of drugs and drinks means that I no longer possess any negatives or prints from that era which is something I so regret.I shall follow your blog with interest.

  1. November 22, 2009 at 10:08 pm

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