“People describe me as a portrait photographer, but I am not. I am a hack,” Jane Bown once claimed. In as much as a hack – or jobbing journalist – communicates what they see to a wider audience, that was accurate. Bown, who died in 2014, worked for the Observer, a British newspaper, for six decades starting from 1949. She was also one of the best portrait photographers of her time – Lord Snowdon described her as “a kind of English [Henri] Cartier-Bresson”. Her pictures go beyond the physically descriptive to convey something profound about each of her subjects. And they are beautiful – sculptural in their texture and the way that the light plays with the shadows.
Bown was unusual in that she preferred to dispense with the usual tricks of her trade – the lights and reflectors and darkroom shimmies – relying instead on her eye and her ability to melt into the background. She shot on 35mm film to the end, almost always in black and white, and rarely took more than 10 minutes on an assignment – sometimes less. Her portrait of Samuel Beckett (1976, above) – deep-etched brow, winged eyebrows and an expression that is both knowing and guarded – was one of just five frames she took at the stage door of the Royal Court theatre as he was trying to avoid her.
The prints on show at an exhibition at Proud Gallery in London were (with the exception of coloured shots of the Beatles) all published in the Observer. Seeing them together, displayed in this long, narrow space, you feel as though you’re walking through a timeline of 20th-century Britain. There are the familiar faces: a young Mick Jagger caught unawares while he was being interviewed, his crotch thrust forward even in repose; David Hockney peering coyly through huge round glasses; Sinead O’Connor, Rudolph Nureyev and Cartier-Bresson himself, pointing his lens at her in what appears to be mutual appreciation rather than a photographic stand-off. And then there are her subtly political reportage pictures. “Pensioners protesting outside Margaret Thatcher’s home” (1980, above) perfectly captures what it meant to be at the butt end of that earlier age of austerity cuts – and what it takes to be one of the greatest hack photographers.
This is an unguarded shot of the aftermath of a day of triumph and disaster. A gentleman in a top hat and tails, his cuffs neatly starched, stabs the front page of what we can imagine is that day’s Racing Post with his furled umbrella, perhaps trying to work out what had gone wrong. Around him are discarded betting slips and, blurred in the background, a knot of straggler racegoers. He has clearly not had the most successful of days: the tension in his umbrella hand and his shadowed eyes are wrought with disappointment. But, in those days and in his stratum of British society, standards were still maintained.
The Beatles (1967)
A rare colour picture of the Fab Four. Unlike the portrait of an urbane, shaven Lennon elsewhere in the exhibition, this one is entirely unstaged – and unplanned. Bown was walking her dog in Knole Park, near Sevenoaks in Kent, when she happened upon the Beatles as they were filming a promo for Penny Lane. She immediately ran back to her house to grab her camera, but only had colour film. It works well for her: the red pop of John Lennon’s jumper puts him firmly at the centre of the group, at ease and in control. George Harrison and Paul McCartney have worried expressions while Ringo Starr, in a purple-striped blazer and collegiate scarf looks faintly suspicious.
Torrey Canyon disaster (1967)
Bown was sent to report on the clean-up operation after the SS Torrey Canyon struck Pollard’s Rock, between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. At the time, it was the world’s largest shipwreck – and is still Britain’s worst environmental disaster. Yet she managed to find beauty in oil-thick sea. The patterns in the water look like the grains in wood and the natural light picks out the hats of the people in the small boat.
American Tourists (1968)
These were the days before contact lenses, and the buttoned up American tourists, standing with their backs to the Victoria Memorial, watching – we presume – the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, are the stuff of comedy. The woman at the front, in her buttoned coat and hat looks non-plussed, while the man on her left appears distinctly unimpressed by what they had travelled so far to see – camera at its most candid.
Women’s Liberation March (1972)
Behind the scenes at the the march in London, to where women had travelled from near and afar to demand free contraceptives and abortions. Bown shows them setting out in fine spirits from the Birth Control Fair. But the child at the front, blocking the women’s way, adds a note of ambiguity to the picture. Does they represent the rights of the unborn, or are they supporting their mother’s right to choose? Either way, the women find a way past.
A singer’s fortune is in their voice. But in this picture of Björk, taken at the time of the launch of her second album, “Post”, she’s covering her mouth, staring out at the camera between splayed fingers. She was 30 at the time and had moved from her native Iceland to London, where her music soon took a more experimental path. She still looks childlike, her eyes full of mischief and fun, trying to contain herself from saying something too outspoken. It was the culmination of one of Bown’s rare longer shoots, the last frame on the day’s final roll of film.
Jane Bown Proud Central until August 12th