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Sunday, 25 October 2009


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I thought she used a 50mm f/1.8, normally set at f/2.8? Happy to be proved wrong though.

Any portrait book by Jane Bown is worth the ticket. My particular faves are: Women of Consequence; Men of Consequence; The Gentle eye; Faces: The Creative Process Behind Great Portraits.
As for the simple, all-manual Olympus OM-1, a Zuiko 100mm ƒ/2.8...: what a perfect set of tools those were! You don't fret about equipment when you have exactly what it takes.

Thank you for posting this, I consider Jane to be one of the great photographers, there is always such emotion in her photographs that you almost believe you have met the person!

She is an inspiration.


I believe I got that information from the tech notes in "Faces" (and here we are discussing technical details again first thing, just like we did with Aaron Huey).

I'll rummage around and dig out my copy of "Faces" later today and check.


It was a 50mm 1.8 and / or an 85mm f2 I believe. It's all in the light though let's be honest, she could have done well with any fast prime...

I know - it seems particularly absurd with Jane Bown. Here she is discussing gear:
"I'm not very particular about equipment: I use Olympus OM1s and have about a dozen, all purchased secondhand more than 40 years ago, and while I have many lenses, I really only use either an 85mm or 50mm one now. In the same way, I'm not all that particular about film or paper.... Rather than use a light meter, I have a setting I like - 1/60sec at f/2.8 - and usually make the picture work around this... I think I timed it perfectly, really: at the Guildford School of Art I learnt how to prepare glass-plate negatives. Now, film is almost obsolete. I could no more contemplate using a digital camera than travel to the moon."

I tend to purchase photographic books that tend to tickle my fancy. Hence my books are often black and white exposures and are represented more from the British standpoint
than anything. The majority are of past British railway companies however I believe that "Exposures" may well be worthwhile to add to the collection. Wonder if Amazon Canada so list the book; ordered via T.O.P. to help
Mike's bottom line. Twenty quid is all of CAN$40.00 or thereabouts, not a ridiculous amount.

At the risk of sounding contrary, I'm an admirer of the early work she did with a Rolleiflex. There's a book called Unknown Bown which features this. Wonderful work.

Such delicacy and tact. Often it doesn't so much seem that she has "taken" the photograph, as that the sitter has "given" it.

Ms Bown was awarded the CBE in 1995, not the MBE, and your link should go here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MBE not to the town near Brazzaville

Unknown Bown 1947-1967 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bown-Jane/dp/0852650760 is a treasure too.

I remember reading some time ago that it was two OM1 bodies, one with a 50mm and one with (I think) an 85mm. More significant, to my mind, was that she carried them around in a shopping basket.

A small unobtrusive middle aged woman with a shopping basket can pretty much get in anywhere...

It's hard to tell the lens in the self-portrait opening the video, but it's definitely not the 50/1.8. I suspect it's the 100/2.8, though it could be the 50/1.4. But it doesn't matter, of course.

Thanks for this, Mike. I was only passingly familiar with her, and not acquainted with a lot of her work.

I really love the photos of the Queen. You can tell that two people are connecting with each other. I suspect under different circumstances they would be great friends.

And back to gear ... the Zuiko 100/2.8 is a classic lens. Not only is it well suited to the types of portraiture Ms. Brown does, but she clearly has used it masterfully.

Now where is my digital OM? THAT would be the definitive DMD-SLR

Accoding to "The Eyes Have It" (url above) she used the following:
Over the next few years, she developed her distinctive style. She bought an Olympus camera with an 85mm lens, and set it, invariably, at a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second with the aperture at f2.8.

Amazing work, each element in the frame just perfectly placed. Inspirational, and yet it seems something happened in the 1990's; her work doesn't quite seem the same.

In the BBC documentary on her work which I saw a couple of years ago, her 'methods' were to use either a 50mm or a moderate wide-angle,...I think it was a 35mm, and to move very close to the subject with the light where she wants it and then, the secret ingredient, is to reach for a unique view by feeling love for the sitter. When she shot Sinead O'Conner she looked down on her shaved scalp....She (Jane) said she took very few frames as she always knew what she wanted in advance and recognised the shot when it happened, so there was not much point in messing about further.

I've made several corrections to the post. Apologies for my mistakes; I put it together early in the morning after being up all night.

(DHM, she was awarded the MBE in 1985 which I believe is when she made the quip. I can't find confirmation of that, however, so it might be wrong.)


While it is true that Jane Bown prefers to use natural light, she does carry a 150-watt bulb which she will put in a table lamp if she can't get the light she wants.

Her work is absolutely inspiring. It took me the better part of an hour to make my way through the slide show.

Another great (paraphrased) Jane Bown quote:

"I realised my best pictures were usually the first and the last shots, so I just decided to stop taking the ones in between".

Many thanks for the pointer, Mike. As a late middle-aged British ex-pat living in the USA it was wonderful to see so many important or interesting figures from the past 5 decades be unified in their portrayal through the lens of a single photographer. The other thing that strikes me is that despite breaking so many photographic "rules" (hotspots, cluttered backgrounds, things not level) just how fresh, vibrant and evocative each of these pictures manages to be. Just take the shot of Anthony Blunt as an example. Remember him? Keeper of the Queen's pictures and long term Russian spy? For those who don't recall that long-running scandal of the British establishment, now go back and look at that shot. Fantastic work.

The French guy wearing a fidora in the second shot really needs to work on his rangefinder technique, or just switch to an SLR. With his left eye closed he's gonna loose a lot of "deciduous moment" shots becaus he can't see what's happening just outside the frame.

My gear: 1D Mark IIn (2), EF 17-40L, EF 100mm f/2, 100-400L IS, 500 f/4 L IS, Panny FZ50

Didn't see a link on the Guardian web page to tell them that the man with Groucho Marx and S. J. Perelman is almost surely Kenneth Tynan not Tyman.

Striking how this photo of the three displays none of the subject absorbed with himself that comes through in most of the individual portraits.

Just proves once more that it's the photographer not the equipment...(hmm - wonder where I can get a wicker shopping basket....)

Watched the presentation over and over—stunning. Nice Channel 4 video interview here (might not be available to readers outside the UK) and a new exhibition at Kings Place in London. (Interesting building that's worth a visit in any case.)

The subjects may be famous, but the images are mostly superficial snapshots rather than ikonic portraits. Not even close to being in the same league as Karsh, Newman, HC-B, Nadar, Eisenstadt, Cameron, etc.

total LOL at C'boy's comment above.

thanks for the introduction to Jane Bown, i had only heard of her in passing so i am glad to have the opportunity to read/see more of her work

"I use Olympus OM1s and have about a dozen, all purchased secondhand more than 40 years ago"

The OM-1 was introduced in 1972...

Bill Mitchell,
No accounting for taste. I prefer Jane Bown's portraits to Karsh's or Newman's.

That's one fact I checked. You'll notice that our post says "for nearly forty years," rather than "more than."


Canonboy: nice equipment list, you seem like a expert. You make some good points about the Belgian guy, I think it's spelt fodora (the hat). You didn't say what kind of card reader do you use? I am concerned I may not be getting the best out of my photos.

Things that struck me:-
1. The use of simple and often single light sources.
2. How many of the subjects were smoking, particularly in the 50's, 60's and 70's, and
3. How vulnerable many of the young women appear even thought they were icons in their day.

@canonboy, Nice equipment, bet it takes good pictures. Re "decidious moment" you'll notice that he is looking low down so as to get better pictures of the falling leaves, so he's not completely useless.

Fedora. Fedora. Fedora.

All this reminds me of a fashion / corporate (?) photographer I read about once on the Kodak site. I forget his name and I can't seem to find him on the Kodak site now either.

Anyway, I recall he said he freaks art directors out because he arrives at fashion shoots with only a Leica M and two rolls of Tri X in his pockets.

He did mention however that he picks the locations and that his choices are based upon always scouting them out beforehand for the light.

I also recall that I really liked his photographs.


Years ago a buddy and I, when musing about working on our cars as hobby, used to joke about mythical mechanics who could make finely-crafted custom high performance parts out of nearby aluminum fencepost and baling wire, 'MacGyver'-style.

Kinda the same thing here, in a way except with Bown it was the real deal.

Shucks, that French fellow could take better snaps with one eye closed than I ever will. I get the feeling he was never too concerned with anything outside the frame. And if my 5th-grade daughter asked how to spell "fedora" I might shamefully reply "H-A-T".

Ms. Bown's work is wonderful. It's nice to see the subtle changes in style over the years especially the appearance of the subjects' hands. Many of her shots include compositional "errors" that we are often told detract from the power of a photograph and yet here her photos are proving it is possible to stylize a shot for a given subject. Bravo!

My criterion for an extraordinary portrait is whether it appears to have captured the essence of the subject's personality and forces me (the viewer) to wish that I could know at least a little more about them.
Bown's work doesn't do this for me, but obviously many viewers find her images completely sufficient in themselves.

I watched the slideshow twice, and though I enjoyed seeing her work, I had mixed feelings about it. With regard to the viewer, portraiture is (IMO) the most subjective form of photography. I found myself lingering more often on images of people I was already interested in, and I can't help but wonder how strong many of these images would be if the subjects weren't already well-known. On the other hand, there were some real gems in there - lively compositions and beautiful light.

Maybe I expect too much, but I've yet to find a body of work by any photographer that contains more than a handful of images that really move me and become a permanent part of my photographic memory. I struggle with the same frustration in my own work, a frustration I haven't yet learned to embrace.

Thanks for linking to Ms.Bown's work, Mike.

The Queen also owns a M6. She posts over on the RangeFinder Forum occasionally.

Jane worked with a Rolleiflex with f/2.5 Tessar until she switched to 35mm SLRs (IIRC Nikon) in 1963. She has used an OM-1 and Zuiko 85/2 almost exclusively since the early 70s. She carries a 50mm for the odd occasion when she needs a wider view.

Not only had I never heard of Jane Bown, not a single one of the many portraits in the slideshow was familiar to me. So I have gone back a couple of times now, to absorb. I was little more than interested the first time through, but the more I see, the more impressed I am.

Although Bown seems to have indulged at times in the dramatic composition, most of the work presented here is not in the stylized, high concept tradition of masters like Karsh or Penn or Avedon; hers is more akin to the work of Cartier-Bresson (who was a wonderful portraitist), with a similar knack for capturing intimate, humanizing moments in the workaday flow of extraordinary lives.

I feel like I've seen more cleverly designed and impeccably produced studio portraits of famous personalities than I need to. I found it uncommon and refreshing to see these people in ordinary light, in the midst of their daily routines, vulnerable and human. In the best of Bown's portraits, the famous are not celebrated or vilified so much as they are cherished.

Thanks for the heads up, Mike.

what I also find astonishing is that she has worked for the Observer for 60 years. The Observer is the world's oldest Sunday paper - began in 1791. Think how many other things have changed since then. And Jane Bown has contributed for more than a quarter of the Observer's history!

I've always admired Jane Bown's portraits. Looking at the long series linked here, besides admiring her work again, I had two sad thoughts: First, and only IMHO, digital B&W has a long way to go before it looks as good as this. Second, it's been many years since I last smoked, and I still miss it.

Jane Bown's portraits are one of a kind. She always manages to convey the emotion in a very special way. Thank you for posting this.

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