Monday, 17 August 2015

Jane Bown - Photographer

One of the difficulties with studying a subject as vast and a diverse as Photography is to know which of the many eminent practitioners, living or dead to research. On the basis that we should contextualise our work and understand where it fits into contemporary art photography I understand that there will be some that I have to engage with more than others. This has led me to a deeper understanding of the works of Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Karl Blossfeldt etc where my practice is drawing from their oeuvre.  From time to time though lesser known photographers pass my window of interest and although I have no particular connection with their work I know I have to look closer at them and their work. In recent months this has occurred with Jane Bown (1925-2014) largely due to the coincidence that I read The Observer and that much of this module is centred on Press images. Bown worked for The Observer as a photographer for over 50 years, working with film (35mm and 6x6) and mostly black and white. Her portraits of the rich and famous are exemplars of how the art of available light photography is a craft that is not well understood, except by a few. In 2014, directors Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte released the documentary film Looking For Light, featuring conversations with Bown about her life and interviews with those she photographed and worked with, including Edna O'Brien, Lynn Barber and Richard Ashcroft. To date the film is my primary source for research, preferring in this instance the work of a film maker to portray a photographer.

The documentary has two stories. The first is that of her life, one full of muddle and insecurity. She was passed around between aunts for many of the early years and then off to join the wrens during the Second World War. Photographs of her though show a happy girl, a girl who did not resent change, someone who was happy to adopt a family, tag along and learn to make the best of what were few options. During the war she worked in map marking and after had no real idea of what to do next. In a demob meeting someone suggested photography and after a few calls she found a course being run by an ex Royal Navy officer. In her own words she didn't enjoy much of the course, preferring to sit and look out of the window and at the weekly critique sessions refused to join in. After college in 1949 she contacted The Observer with a request. "I want to go to Paris, If you pay the fair I will take 4 portraits for you". They said yes and she was given a list of names, so with her friend she travelled to Paris, photographed amongst others Jean Cocteau ( her without a word of French) and returned with the film. Following this test her first assignment was to photograph the philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell, an experience she described as terrifying. The simplicity of the whole business  is quite adorable, but perhaps the world in the late 1940s was a simpler place. No CV writing, no interview techniques to learn, just a naive (by our standards) approach and a bold acceptance of her own abilities. This simplicity follows in her photography. Seldom did she use anything other than daylight, preferring being near a window or at the worst during November and December maybe an anglepoise lamp. Her equipment was simple. Either a Rollieflex or later the Olympus OM1, most of which were second hand and carried about in a wicker basket. As Polly Toynybee (a writer for the Guardian) relates that Bown did not have the persona one thinks of as a press photographer. Rankin describes her as a "package". Home Counties, well dressed small woman who had an amazing talent that probably put her amongst the finest portrait photographers in the UK with The Telegraph describing her (in their obituary) as "a kind of English Cartier Bresson".

Jane Bown Self Portrait 1949

The documentary follows Bown on a trip to old family homes and a graveyard, where with the help of one of her sons she reminisces on her early days at The Observer and in detail some of the assignments. Probably the single most iconic Bown image is of the Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett. Beckett had at first given permission for photographs then later in the day declined. Bown with her tenacity stood outside the stage door for hours waiting for him to leave and put it quite bluntly that he had to have his photograph taken. He agreed that 5 frames were allowed and Bown took 7. His stern semi scowling pose is most certainly not that of a willing participant and has become synonymous with Bown. The full frame image below is the one preferred by Bown. The version often used removes the brick wall to the left to therefore show a complete black background, a version that Bown is not happy with.

 Samuel Beckett - Jane Bown, 1976

Amongst many personal and biographical facts we are privy to in the film there are many photography techniques to be learnt. What we learn early is that the photographer is the second violin in the duet of journalist and photographer when on an assignment. The pairing when sent out would have a meeting place established (probably by Press Officers or Agents) and a prescribed amount of time that the subject would be available. Most often the journalist would start the process and Bown would sit out of the way waiting her turn, getting anxious by the minute as her time slot at the end became shorter. Also interesting is the reaction of journalists if Bown went first in the session and started chatting to the sitter, gaining their confidence. Her inoffensive style allowing them to open up and reveal more than when the journalist (and their pointed, aggressive questions) did the interview. Bown describes The Observer as a family, her family and the thought of working for any other publication never entered her thoughts. Her description of washing her hair in the darkroom and drying it in the film cabinet is an insight of how it was possible then to become part of a place of work with loyalties that have in the recent past become lost. When she married the editor/owner of The Observer, David Astor agreed to give her away as she had nobody closer than him at the time.
Clearly with her various exhibitions and books she is an exemplar of the press photographer from that post war period. Looking closely at the portrait images I am struck by her style. The subject often sitting and her standing (although she is short in stature) gives her a slightly elevated point of view that makes the sitter look up very slightly. A technique that then uses the eyes in a dynamic way to engage with the camera. Also her apparent use of a limited number of focal length lenses with her favourites being 50mm and 85mm. 

Her preferred situation was to photograph the subject near to a window, rate her TriX at 400 and set 1/60 at f2.8. A simple no fuss approach that when inspected closely does work incredibly well. By working quickly (she seldom had more than 10 minutes to complete the shoot) with no fuss the subject did not feel intimidated. A smart, small quiet lady was taking the photographs, using a small camera, there was no threat. They would relax with her and it was then when she would see their personality and take the frame. She never tried to embarrass them with overtly off guard images, all she wanted was to see behind the eyes and capture a moment of them as themselves, not the contrived image of the agent or press office.

In 1985 she was awarded an MBE and again in 1995 a CBE. 2000 saw her receive an Honorary Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society and in 2009 she received an honorary degree from The Open University, 40 years after her first assignment.   

The documentary film has an air of sadness as we see her late in her life. Bown spends time being very contemplative of her life and perhaps due to her age she doesn't smile very much. At one point she reveals that in the whole of her life the only times when she was happy was when she was working and taking photographs

A selection of her portraits can be seen here.

She died on December 21, 2014

Edit: 22 August 2015

I now have a copy of Bown's book Exposures, Guardian Books, 2009

One of the facets of photography practice that I champion is the print. There is no photograph without there being a print and while others may say this is untrue in the digital age I disagree. There is of course the opportunity to see images on a screen either for the viewers gratification or for the purposes of post processing and editing. The later of the two is of course part of the technical/artistic process in bringing the image from concept to realisation, if the image needs a digital phase in its manufacture. To view photographs on a screen is a transient act of some visual stimulation but there is nothing lasting. Once the button is pressed it is gone and as a photograph it no longer exists. Exposures is a book of 130 monochrome photographs by Jane Bown (and one or two others who photographed her at work) that with some rudimentary care will last forever. It lays here on my desk open at page 6 and I am looking at a portrait of Eve Arnold. It will be there all day while I work so that I can glance at it or if I feel the need stare at it. I may turn the pages randomly and let it fall open somewhere else, who knows as it and my actions in owning it are now totally in my control. Each time I look at it I see something fresh, a small area of tone that I consider, ask myself if Bown noticed that or if she wanted something more or less. At no time do I have to interact with a switch and become binary and my time appreciating the work is never linear. The quality of the production, printing, paper choice and the text is sublime with no aspect of the purchase that one would or could criticise. Nor the price, which direct from the Guardian bookshop is now £24. The same as some coffees and a snack at a motorway services for two people.
I guess at some time in the future I will look at all of the pages in chronological order, but for now a random viewing technique is preferred, once again a non digital activity, as I dont have to chose a page number and click on it, I just allow the pages to fall open at random. Bown's portraits are more than head and shoulders. They are more often head and upper torso and that allows us to see more of what surrounds the subject. For the most part these images are to illustrate a story in The Observer, so seeing for instance Edna O'Brien, p 108 we see her, her upper torso and her arms which are at an angle as her hands are holding her neck. A charming woman with a necklace and a bracelet, both understated pieces that tell us she is not a loud brash woman. Behind her a couch and bookshelves, heavy with books. Again we know from the style of the furniture and the number of books that the lady is well read and has good quality artifacts around her. The place looks cosy and comfortable. If Bown had gone in close we would have seen O'Brien's head, maybe shoulders but nothing else. By stepping back we still know what she looks like and we see more and know more. The essence of good communication.
In contrast the portrait of Boris Karloff p, 116 is a much closer crop. The landscape format slices off the top of his head and the bottom of his chin is on the bottom of the frame. It is heavily side lit with most of the left hand side in deep shadow. It is a moody severe image. The background is not really definablele, maybe a seat back, which looks like a railway seat or aeroplane. This ambiguity is good because we are not to know and Bown has worked here to make sure it is only the facial features we see. The methodology and practice suits the subject, a mysterious man. The book is without doubt a masterclass in portrait photography away from the studio and has inspired me to look at it every day and make way for this type of work in my own practice if I ever get the chance.

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