Jane Bown, CBE (1925 -
Photography for the Press has taken some ‘funny turns’ since Jane Bown’s
first assignment for The Observer newspaper in 1949. John Chillingworth, who
started work on the staff of a National picture magazine at around the same
time, knows just how brilliantly her natural portraiture and creative
photo-reporting has sparkled from that day to this.
Photographers from the era, when post-war Fleet Street was bristling with
talent both photographic and journalistic, would probably agree that there
were as many ways of ‘making your mark’.
Jane Bown, a former member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and,
post-war, a student at the Guildford School of Photography, headed by the
legendary Ifor Thomas, made her mark simply by being herself!
Knowing her strikingly elusive way of projecting that very quality, it is
irritating to read, from time to time, of her being ‘up there’ with Snowdon,
Bailey and the accompanying gaggle of photo-personalities with overblown
From her full height of 5’ 2”, as a portraitist and photo-artist, she towers
head and shoulders above them!
The reason is simple. She has never cared for any of the ‘baggage’ of
technical advances or manufactured style. The creative diversity of her
portraits has always been the result of her razor-sharp, instantaneous
ability to read the character of the sitter and, using her forever trusty
Olympus camera, it became a mirror to reflect the subject’s personality.
Well met in Fleet Street
David Astor, then editor and owner of The Observer, Britain’s oldest Sunday
newspaper, entertained many of the ideals attributed to the leading weekly
National picture magazine of the era, Picture Post.
To be the conscience of the nation, at the time the British were virtually
bankrupt in the aftermath of war, was something of a tall order. Then, like
most things, newsprint was rationed, but Astor believed in journalism with
the camera as well as the pen.
Employing the paper’s first picture editor, the mercurial, multi-talented
Mechthild Nawiasky, he aimed to match the charisma of photography in the
Picture Post mould, but with The Observer’s highly individual slant.
Nawiasky saw Jane Bown’s pictures of children in a routine review of
photographers’ portfolios. Amongst them was an image of a cow’s eye. The
rest is history!
Becoming the observer
In the fifty-two years since she took the number eleven bus, camera in
handbag, to her first Observer assignment (Bertrand Russell at breakfast
with his bride at a London hotel) succeeding picture editors, editors and
proprietors of that authoritative Sunday newspaper have cherished, nurtured,
respected and retained her.
On one occasion, she was heard to say modestly, “I owe it all to The
Observer”. However, The Observer owes much to her, because try as they will,
competing publications have, to this day, failed to establish a working
relationship with a photographer of her towering stature, which has stood
the test of time. It is she who is the ‘observer’!
Most newspaper ‘magnets’ have cyclical hate-hate relationships with creative
beings they do not understand, invariably learning, too late, that the
journalist or photographer who failed to bend to the corporate will, had
gone on to enhance their reputations – and sometimes their bank balances -
on other newspapers or in other spheres! With Jane Bown, such problems did
Archetypal news photographers in the first decade of her long career, would
often indulge the little lady with a canvas hold-all as some kind of
bumbling amateur, until the penny finally dropped.
Whether covering a news story of national importance, looking for a subject
of intrinsic beauty, making a living portrait of the least important or the
most pompous of subjects, her pictures have appeared more regularly and to
consistent acclaim, than any ‘press photographer of the year’.
Her association with The Observer continues to infinity. Whilst others fight
to be seen at the top of the tree, Jane Bown, without knowing or caring, has
been sitting there since ‘the Lord left Kilmarnock’!