I first looked at the work of Jane Bown (1925–2014) during the Context and Narrative course (see here), when I watched the documentary Looking for Light. Bown was a staff photographer for the Guardian newspaper for much of her working life and the reputation she gained for portraiture was such that celebrities would request sittings with her (an interesting twist for a newspaper photographer).
Bown’s book, Faces: The creative process behind great portraits, is both introduced by Bown herself and she provides brief commentaries on each of the photos. The book includes 120 black and white portraits, covering several decades; subjects including Woody Allen, John Lennon, Anthony Hopkins; it is like a who’s who of newsworthy personalities.
What draws me to Bown’s work is that while she took an uncomplicated approach to photography, using an Olympus OM1 and almost exclusively natural light, working under tight time constraints, her photos are captivating. It feels as if one is looking into the real character of her sitters, with little artifice. Bjork is quoted on the dust cover of the book, saying:
She can look at a person and she knows, instinctively, straight away, who they are.’
Things I’ve learned from looking at the book:
- Bown always shot on location, rather than in a studio and worked to address different set of practical constraints where ever she worked. This flexibility to deal with the sometimes less than ideal, and improvise seems important.
- Bown stayed with her manual 35mm Olympus OM1 and 50mm lens throughout her career. A camera that can now be purchased on eBay, including lens for around £100. There can be a tendency for photographers to fall into the ‘gear acquisition’ trap thinking that the latest gear will make the difference to their work, when it is really what goes on behind the camera that makes the difference. Bown’s approach is a powerful example of this maxim. She says, ‘I don’t use lights, flash or light meters. This means that I travel light and don’t waste time setting up. I like to have as few barriers as possible ..’ (Bown J (2000), p8).
- Bown’s preparation for a session in a new location was focused on looking for light; ‘once the light is dealt with, I can can get on with the business of taking the picuture’ (ibid, p9). She comments that in situations she could not find natural light she would improvise, for example by putting a 150 watt bulb into a table light. Photographing in black and white offers more leeway in lighting than colour, where the temperature of light needs to be more carefully considered.
- Bown describes how she moves around her subjects to explore the framing of the shot and the context of the portrait. Each portrait in the book includes Bown’s explanation of the framing and what she liked about each image. There seems to be a clear intention and an attention to detail. This is perhaps what is needed to take great portraits; a great awareness of what is occurring within the frame. I’ve noticed in my own work that I’m sometimes prone to miss small distracting details in the frame, which could have easily been removed physically or by reframing at the time of shooting. The discipline of considering the whole frame, not just the subject is particularly important in portraiture.
- While some of Bown’s work comprises head shots (important for newspapers), much includes context, which was perhaps not included in newspaper prints. Hands and features in rooms or outdoor spaces form an important part of the narrative for Bown’s portraits; whether they are directly connected to the subjects or to aid with the composition.
This book is a great inspiration for black and white portraiture. Highly recommended.