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Monday, 22 December 2014

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"Even after she could no longer take photographs ... "

What a blow that must have been.

I always found it gruesome to discuss the equipment used by legendary photographers. It just doesn't matter: what's important is the pictures they left us. However, knowing a photographer like Jane Bown used the relatively modest Olympus OM cameras prompts me some thoughts about what is required to make great pictures.
35mm cameras like the OM strike a very well-judged balance between quality and convenience. The OM lenses are quite sharp, if not up to Zeiss and Nikon standards, and they do an excellent job in retrieving fine detail. With the right film (especially with the Ilfords) they are capable of excellent results. So much, in fact, that you could ask yourself if larger and more expensive equipment is really necessary. Would Jane's portraits be any better if she used a Mamiya 645? Not really. What was important was to seize the marvellously troubled expression in Beckett's wrinkles, the mystery in Orson Welles' eyes or the sarcasm of Morrissey. She did all of it. With Olympus OM cameras she bought second-hand.
Yet we all get involved in pseudo-scientific debates on 'equivalent aperture' and other utter nonsense; we crave the most expensive cameras and speak of their performance the same way we discuss the specifications of cars we'll never drive - and, if we did, we'd make a mess out of it. That's all pointless if we think about it.
I'm not saying equipment doesn't contribute to the quality of a picture. It does. The 'best camera is the one with you' cliché is one I stubbornly refuse to subscribe. If said camera happens to be the one in your mobile phone (no matter if you call it 'smartphone'), chances are you won't make the photography you expected due to the camera's limitations. You need a decent camera to make the pictures look like the way you intended them to because you need control, but you don't really need the best equipment to make great pictures. that's a delusion. We all lust for cameras from time to time, but they won't make us photograph any better.
I wish today's entry could be a lesson for all those who get obsessive with gear. The camera is just a tool. What makes a photography great is the mind of the person behind it.

I wasn't familiar with Jane Bown before and I don't think I'm the only one. Too bad, she deserves to be much better known this side of the pond. Thanks.

She was a wonderful person and photographer and I feel bad for writing this, but I recently saw the documentary about her and found it very disappointing. I thought it was poorly edited and some of the filming was borderline amateurish. Sound levels were all over the place too. A real shame and missed opportunity but still worth a watch, maybe I was just spoiled by 'McCullin'?

I'm familiar with a number of her portraits, but was not familiar with her name. So, thank you!

I was looking at your 2009 article on Jane Bown, the comment section turned into a gear thread.. :)

I think Mike and I both made the point independently, when Faces was published, that although it is masquerading as a collection of photos, it is in fact a masterclass in portrait photography.

I think I've commented on this before when discussing camera bags, Jane famously used a plastic carrier bag for hers, but I had the privelege to work with her back in the late 80's. I was working as a camera assistant to a wonderful old school aristocratic photographer with a studio in London's Kensington. The studio had a huge arched, leaded, north facing window. Perfect for natural light B&W. It had originally been the studio of Wyndham Lewis. Jane was a friend of the owner and asked to borrow the studio to shoot a portrait for Country Life Magazine, I was asked to give her a hand.
Jane came in, carrier bag in hand, had a look round and asked for a chair to be placed by the window. When her subject arrived she was very quickly sat in the chair, Jane dug around in her carrier bag and fished out a well used OM1. I pulled out a light metering was told "don't bother with that thing," very few frames were shot, I don't recall a second roll of film being loaded and then it was tea and biscuits.
Quick simple, understated and a perfect full page portrait in the next issue of Country Life. Classy, she'll be greatly missed.

Thanks for this. Wonderful insights.

Although I am not interested in celebrity photographs, that does not stop me being a huge admirer of Jane Bown as a photographer. Street photographers could learn a lot from her style.

Ironic that she worked for the Observer. I have often thought that photographers would do well to consider the 'Observer Effect', ie. the effect that the method of observation has on the thing being observed.

If you 'act the pro' and hide behind a D4 with a flash gun, chances are your subject will act like a diva, play the fool, or freeze like rabbit in the headlights. You may develop a signature style, but you may as well scrawl it across the subject's face.

By comparison, Jane had everything pared down to essentials. No fuss, no artifice and no subversion. The photographer is nowhere to be seen.

As photographers we spend too long trying to be noticed. Perhaps we should try harder to get out of the way?

'Colour is too noisy,' she once said. 'The eye doesn't know where to rest.'

Is that not the most wonderful quote? That sums up the color vs B/W discussion rather succinctly. Im going to shoot more available light black and white.

RIP Jane

The BBC Radio 4 Today program included a 6 minute piece on Jane Brown in their Best of Today podcast on Monday talking to Luke Dodd, the Observer's archivist and photographer Eamonn McCabe who worked with Jane Brown at the Observer. And a little piece about her photographing Beckett.

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/today/today_20141222-1207b.mp3

She does seem to have been a bit of an eccentric and perhaps a bit of a technophobe.

For example, she didn't trust fast shutter speeds. That was an issue with older "miniature" cameras. She didn't "believe in" light meters either. If she needed extra light she'd take an Anglepoise light with her from editors desk (without her editors permission).

She started off with large format plates and a medium format Rollei. That shooting style seems to be transferred to miniature cameras. A bit like Weegee's "f/8 and be there" (with a 4x5 Graflex and flash blub) exposure technique.

The interesting thing is her "preferred setting" setting: f/2.8 at 1/60. This has mutated to "single setting" in the telling, I think.

No film speed is specified. A quick guess is to apply "Sunny 16" and you get a film speed of ISO 2(ish) in bright sunlight. She's not shooting in the bright outdoors using those settings on any reasonable film.

She apparently used Kodak TriX for portraits. It's mentioned in the book Faces along with the camera settings. I was surprised it isn't Ilford HP4 or HP5 as she's in the UK but the papers can afford to pay the extra for Kodak.

So her film speed is ISO 400 (or so, depending on EI) which gives an illumination of around EV7 i.e. "Brightly lighted nighttime streets. Indoor sports. Stage shows, circuses". Bright interiors are at EV6. So she's underexposing indoor ambient light by a stop or so and looking for window light to highlight the person.

Outside would be too bright unless she's in a dim location. This seems to match up with the description of the Beckett shoot: "Once she cornered the notoriously camera-phobic Samuel Beckett in a dark alleyway down the side of the Royal Court theatre in London as he tried to escape her lens.". No time of day is given.

The phrase "indirect sunlight from a north-facing widow" is rather odd phrasing as you can't get sunlight through a north-facing window. I presume she means using a wall illuminated by sunlight through a north facing window for highlights.

There's a bit more discussion here ...

http://photo.net/black-and-white-photo-film-processing-forum/00N2mv

But she could certainly get the shot.

Jane's equipment and working method was incredibly simple. She nearly always preferred the 85mm lens on her OM-1, occasionally swapping it for a 50mm. She usually worked alongside an Observer interviewer and would take photos during the interview or in a brief period once it was over, often only just enough time to expose a single roll of 36 exposures.

As for the Tri-X, she may have just used the film she was issued with. It was a hugely popular product. HP4 was not considered as good, while being manufacture in Cheshire would not have swayed many; the robustness and consistency in various developers and its push-performance in poor light, where Tri-X was superior, would be far more important.

While 1/60 @ f2.8 seems to have been widely quoted as her preferred setting, she metered off the back of her hand so I'm sure it would not be the only exposure used.

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