As noted in my post about Yousuf Karsh, there were two portrait photographers whose work caught my attention. One was Karsh, the other is a British photographer named Jane Bown. A photographer for The Observer since 1949, Bown’s portraits are straight-forward and without pretension and known for their wide variety of subjects. From politicians, clergy, and royalty to film stars, writers, and even ordinary people she met on the street, the photos have a simple and honest quality, capturing the individual and his personality rather than a contrived representation of him.
Samuel Beckett – such an iconic and fascinating face, but this photo is different than other representations I have seen – it is a simple image, so simple it might be called plain but for the astounding face captured in it. Bown makes no attempt to fancy up her subject or her images, she shows them as they are.
Simplicity is key for Bown as she works to let her subject dominate the picture and fully engage the viewer. She achieves this in large part by simplifying her photography: her camera is always set on its lowest aperture with a high shutter speed, usually 125. This gives a shallow depth of field that allows the setting to fade away, highlighting the subject with special focus on the eyes.
Personality is a primary focus for Bown. She would usually only have ten or fifteen minutes to shoot, and to get a winner she would have to capture those fleeting moments when the individuality of her subject would shine through in an expression or gesture that shows who a person is in that moment. This photo of Michael Caine exhibits the kind of moment that Brown would have looked for – a casual, comfortable gesture with his tea and cigarette, just being himself.
This photo of Bridget Riley is another beautifully captured moment. Her expression is so genuine and unique – it seems that Bown is sharing a glimpse into the depth of her emotions, showing not only outer beauty but the natural beauty within.
Jane Bown is a forceful and talented photographer, though she calls herself a hack. She doesn’t let the technical aspects of her art to get in the way of what is most important to her – a truthful image. She has said, “I often feel that they [the subjects] were doing it, not me. I was just recognising what they were”, and that “some photographers make pictures, but I try to find them” – reasons why her photography speaks so strongly to me on a personal level as well as artistically.
Check out the citations below for some fabulous and fascinating articles (and links to more!) about Jane Bown and to see more of her work!