Words - 20th Century Greats - Jane Brown


20th Century Greats series (2001)

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 reputations.

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 not arise.

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’!

© Copyright John Chillingworth