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Looking for Light: Jane Bown

Looking for Light
Jane Bown’s elbows were sharp, “as sharp as anyone else’s” she says. They came in useful.

This documentary, released in Bown’s 90th year, is a poetically paced look at her photography and approach to life. She is singly known for over fifty years’ service to the Observer newspaper for which she has captured images of everyone from Beckett to Tarkovsky, from The Queen to Desmond Tutu. And many, many, many more between.


After the Second World War, a twenty year-old Bown left the Wrens and found a full-time photography course in Guildford. It was suggested she go to London to show some photos, and it was there that the Observer pictures editor saw her take a photograph of Bertrand Russell. But this documentary is not solely about her life and work, it is also a meditative approach to showing still photography through moving film.

Her work was always in black and white, and mostly using natural light (“I always did 1/60 at F2.8”) and she usually took no more than ten minutes for any shoot. As such there is a delicate touch, a lightness, and sense of genuine momentary capture in her photographs which a lesser photographer might work hard to replicate, not realising that a less-concentrated, intuitive approach is needed. The talking heads – including interviews the directors Luke Dodd and Michael White conducted with Bown in 2005 – are interspersed with still-frame images on a slideshow which pause for generous durations, allowing the subjects (for they are almost exclusively portraits) to look straight through the photograph – and through the film – straight into the eyes of the viewer.

It is the easy pace which makes this work quite compelling. A lack of any background sound or music, save for the talking heads, means that there is plenty of time and space to really think about the few words which are spoken, and to think of them in relation to the photographs as they languidly drift by. This slow rhythm and self-assuredness of the composition – not to rush the story, not to worry about silences, not to force a narrative arc – is the strength of the film. The photography writer Sean O’Hagen comments on how Bown repeatedly finds the silence around people as well as the silence within them; this film is also concerned with these silences, knowing that they give the viewer time to reflect and relate to the content.

The space that the film gives the viewer in which to think is important, not just in relation to the images, but also about what is said. Bown herself doesn’t say much, but when she does, her words are chosen as particularly as her photographic compositions. On some occasions the topics she covers, not least in relation to her upbringing and relationship to her family, are only given a few words, but it is during the silences that the meanings, suggestions and gravitas of what is being said will sink into your mind.

Jane Bown, Taken in mirror

Bown is a great observer of people, a master at watching, waiting and working out her subjects – she says that she ‘found’ photographs rather than ‘took’ them – and she is eminently observable here too. A beautiful portrait of the portraitist.

As for the elbows? She needed those to fight off the masculine, aggressive press-packs when covering events such as the Dockers Strike in 1971. She may have been petite and personable, but if her sharp eye found an image that she wanted to capture, then she was determined to find a way to get to it.

Looking For Light: Jane Bown is out in UK cinemas 25th April

There is an exhibition of her photography from 21st April at Kings Place, London. Click here for information.

Words>Will Jennings

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