Jane Bown
  • Introduction

  • CV

  • Exhibitions

  • Publications

  • Interviews

  • Links

A Quiet Focus on the Essentials

From the 1950s onward, Jane Bown was known as one the of the UK’s most significant portrait photographers. Born in 1925 in Dorset, she photographed all the important personalities of her time: artists Francis Bacon and David Hockney; actors and directors such as Woody Allen and Dennis Hopper; fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood; musicians such as the Beatles and Björk; and major political figures including Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, and the Queen. She had a working career with The Observer for over 60 years beginning with her first portrait of philosopher Bertrand Russel in 1949. His distinctive profile, giving off a silent pride, emerges from an abstract background in black and white contrast.

All of her portraits exhibit a high degree of focus. Her simple technical means never changed: no artificial light, no props, no assistant, no color. She did not even use a light meter.

“I always look at the light on the back of my hand and calculate it that way.” Starting out with a Rollei, then a Pentax, and finally landing on an Olympus she used until the end of her career, she developed her own distinctive style. She concentrated on a person’s head, above all on their eyes, isolating them in front of a vague background. She perfected her minimalist photography over time to achieve technical and compositional perfection.

In one of her rare interviews Jane Bown was asked if she agrees with Richard Avedon that most photography is very precise, but doesn’t tell the truth. After hesitating a bit she said: “I think my pictures do.”

According to her own understanding, the photographer should always be invisible and be able to catch the right moment: “The best pictures come from the unforeseen. They suddenly appear out of nowhere. One moment they are there, the next they are gone. It is very simple to take a picture, but it is very difficult to make a good photograph.” She would do anything to catch that good photograph, as was the case with Richard Nixon. The assignment came in late, and all the other journalists were already there, blocking her view. There was nothing left other than to get down on her knees and shoot the image from this position. The first one didn’t work out. Nixon asked: “Do you have it?” She said no. He posed again and asked: “Do you have it?” And then she got it.

Most of the time she had only ten minutes to take pictures, something which requires precision, perception, and for a shy person like Jane Bown, a high degree of determination. When she met Dennis Hopper in 1982 at the Savoy Hotel, she marched straight to his room and took stock of the situation. Within seconds she came up with her idea for the picture and within a few attempts, she had the portrait of the actor, in a hat, smoking in front of a mirror. Samuel Beckett had wanted to cancel their appointment due to a lack of time, but Bown didn’t allow him to shake her off so easily and caught him at the stage exit. In just five shots, she captured one of the most memorable portraits of him ever taken. Her work reached critical acclaim in 1995, when the National Portrait Gallery had a show and catalogue of her work titled “The Gentle Eye.” In 1995 she also received the British Order of Merit for her exceptional achievements in photography. Various publications document her work, including the photo book “Faces” from 2000.

Geraldine Blum

1925Born in Dorset

Jane Bown studied photography at Guildford Shool of Art, Surrey (1946-50). Joined Observer newspaper in January 1949 and her first published work for the paper was a portrait of Bertrand Russell that appeared the same month. In 1964, worked in colour for 3 years for Observer Colour Magazine but disliked it and returned to working predominantly in black and white. Her extensive photojournalism output includes series on Sinti and Romanies, Greenham Common evictions, and in 2002, the Glastonbury Festival. Her sitters include Björk, Queen Elizabeth II, Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, Orson Welles, David Hockney, Sir John Betjeman, Jayne Mansfield and The Beatles.
2014Passed away

Awards (Selection)

1995Barry Award, 1995
1995What the Papers Say, 1995
1995CBE, 1995
1986DLitt Bradford, 1986
1985MBE, 1985

Collections (Selection)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Palace of Westminster, London

Buckingham Palace, London

The Royal Ballet School, London

Exhibitions (Selection)

Single Exhibitions (Selection)
2007 - 2008
'Unknown Bown 1947-1967' The Newsroom, London
2003'Rock: 1963-2003', The Newsroom, London
1980 - 1981'The Gentle Eye', National Portrait Gallery, London

Group Exhibitions (Selection)

2007How We Are - Photographing Britain, Tate Britain, London


Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, March 2006:

Books/Catalogs (Selection)

1980'The Gentle Eye', 1980
'Women of Consequence', 1986
1987'Men of Consequence', 1987
1988'The Singular Cat', 1988
1991'Pillars of the Church', 1991
2000'Faces: The Creative process Behind Great Portraits, 2000
2003'Rock: 1963-2003', 2003
2007'Unknown Bown', 2007
2009‘Exposures’, 2009

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