Portrait Photographer- Jane Bown

My tutor suggested I take a look at photographer Jane Bown to gain a little more insight into portrait photography. She was born in 1925, and is one of the UK’s leading portrait photographers. Bown chose photography completely at random when deciding on a college course. This reminded me of my experience in photography; as I chose photography at random, having never held a DSLR camera before! Jane Bown was exactly the same; “Then, at the end of the war, Jane – who was now 21 – was given a grant to go to college, though she had no idea what to study.  “I looked at the lists of courses, saw photography, picked it and managed to get into Guildford College. On the first day, we were all told to go out and take photographs. I didn’t know how to. I had never held a camera before.” (1) This highlights that anyone can become a photographer with hard work and perseverance. This definitely encouraged me to keep at it and continue to work hard in this course.

Bown is most known for her beautiful black and white photographs- “The iconic black and white photographs that span six decades tell the story of Jane Bown’s remarkable career at the Observer newspaper. Yet, with typical modesty OU honorary graduate Jane says it was not her that made the unforgettable images possible but her subjects from the worlds of art, literature, music and politics…” (2) Bown emphasises the importance of the subject; but goes on to further highlight an even more important aspect of photography; building a strong relationship with your subject. This is a huge point which I learnt in my recent research into portrait photography. Building up a strong connection with your subject prior to the shoot is essential. Half the battle in photography is having the skills to make your subject feel relaxed and at ease. Jane Bown definitely did not overlook this key point. When writing about her relationship with her subject’s Robin McKie says: “Thatcher and Nixon, are fondly recalled. She relished them and often they revered her. Jean Cocteau even sent her a letter enclosing love and best wishes from his cat, Madeleine.”(3) We can see this skill in her beautiful image of the queen taken on her 80th birthday (see below). The relaxed appearance of the subject highlights Bown’s ability to connect well with her subjects.

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Another key aspect in portrait photography that Bown discusses is the importance of instinct. This cannot be taken for granted. When talking about fellow photographers photographing with her at Wembley she states; “All their planning came to nowt because I got the front page the next day. You have to be very alert, very receptive and very instinctive. I just watched. It’s not that difficult.” (5) Never lose concentration for one second when capturing portraits. When capturing children for example, it’s those key moments in between shots that will produce that one star shot. That little grin towards Mummy, or that mischievous moment between brother and sister, or that precious smile from a newborn. These are the moments that are worth capturing in portrait photography. And this is why Bown was so successful- she was always alert, and she used her instincts to make the best out of every situation.

Even Bown’s very style is extremely similar to my own. “Over the next few years, she developed her distinctive style. She bought an Olympus camera with an 85mm lens, and set it, invariably, at a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second with the aperture at f2.8. This combination of wide aperture on a close-up lens produced a very thin depth of field. So by focusing on her subject’s head and, in particular, their eyes, she caught their faces in a way that isolated them, sharply, against hazy backgrounds. At the same time, she made sure the light caught her subject’s eyes. Just look at those images: Margaret Thatcher, Richard Harris, Francis Bacon. Each personality is caught by a glittering eye.”(6) This wide open aperture used to focus solely on the subject’s face and specifically their eyes; is exactly my style. The bokeh backgrounds and soft portraits that these techniques produce, make for a strong portraiture style that I believe works very strongly. The idea of using the subject’s position to the light in order to produce a glitter in their eye is a great one that I intend to take on board. This highlights that her thoughts behind each shot are intricate; she plans to angle her subject in such a way as to catch a glimmer in their eyes in order to show their personalities. This shows a great deal of skill and initiative. See the images below for examples of this technique.

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portrait Francis Bacon lover auction Sotheby's

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Margaret Thatcher

Bown’s natural instinct and skill are shown further in her minimalist style. “Most of her photographs were taken in sessions that lasted no more than 15 minutes. She had no props and turned up carrying only a shopping bag with her camera in it. Annie Leibovitz she wasn’t. Even exposure meters were shunned.  “I just looked at the light on the back of my hand and judged it that way.” Thus Bown perfected minimalist photography: the same camera, the same lens, the same setting, but no flash or exposure meter. In this way she was left free to concentrate on those eyes.”(9) This emphasises that fancy lighting and camera’s aren’t necessary to produce great photographs. Without all this equipment; Bown was free to concentrate completely on the subject; without stressing about extra technicalities.

I have learnt that Jane Bown is a photographer after my own heart. Beautiful bokeh backgrounds with images focussed solely on the subjects, minimal equipment, and great uniqueness in her approach to photographing portraits are all techniques I aspire to achieve in my photography. I plan to use her great skills and techniques to improve upon my portrait photography. Her approach to capturing portraits is so brilliantly simple and refreshing. A truly inspirational photographer!

See some more of her iconic black and white portraits below;

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Bjork-by-Jane-Bown-003

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jane-bown-david-hockney

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samuel beckett

(1) THE GUARDIAN (2009), Jane Bown: The Eyes Have It, Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/jane-bown-photographer-retrospective-exposures [Accessed on: 24/04/13]

(2) THE OPEN UNIVERSITY (2013), An interview with photographer and OU hon grad Jane Bown, Available from: http://www.open.ac.uk/platform/news-and-features/interview-with-photographer-and-ou-hon-grad-jane-bown [Accessed on: 24/04/13]

(3) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/jane-bown-photographer-retrospective-exposures)

(4) BLOGSPOT (2011), Cigarettes and Magazines- Jane Bown Photographer, Available from: http://coffeecigarettesmagazines.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/jane-bown-photo.html [Accessed on 24/04/13]

(5) THE OPEN UNIVERSITY (2013), An interview with photographer and OU hon grad Jane Bown, Available from: http://www.open.ac.uk/platform/news-and-features/interview-with-photographer-and-ou-hon-grad-jane-bown [Accessed on: 24/04/13]

(6) THE GUARDIAN (2009), Jane Bown: The Eyes Have It, Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/jane-bown-photographer-retrospective-exposures [Accessed on: 24/04/13]

(7) THE GUARDIAN (2013), Portrait of Francis Bacon’s violent lover to be auctioned at Sotheby’s, Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/apr/08/bacon-lover-auctioned-sothebys [Accessed on: 24/04/13]

(8) BLOGGER (2010), Pip Wheatcroft Photographer- Jane Bown Pictures, Available from: http://www.pipsphotography.co.uk/2010/03/jane-bown-pictures.html [Accessed on 24/04/13]

(9) THE GUARDIAN (2009), Jane Bown: The Eyes Have It, Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/jane-bown-photographer-retrospective-exposures [Accessed on: 24/04/13]

(10) BLOGSPOT (2011), Cigarettes and Magazines- Jane Bown Photographer, Available from: http://coffeecigarettesmagazines.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/jane-bown-photo.html [Accessed on 24/04/13]

(11) BLOGSPOT (2011), Cigarettes and Magazines- Jane Bown Photographer, Available from: http://coffeecigarettesmagazines.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/jane-bown-photo.html [Accessed on 24/04/13]

(12) BLOGSPOT (2011), Cigarettes and Magazines- Jane Bown Photographer, Available from: http://coffeecigarettesmagazines.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/jane-bown-photo.html [Accessed on 24/04/13]

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