Looking for Light: Jane Bown
This new documentary by Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte about the photographer Jane Bown focuses upon the great photographer with a similar beauty, simplicity and sincerity that is characteristic of Bown’s own work. Jane Bown has worked for The Observer as a photographer since 1949, and throughout her long and illustrious career she has photographed hundreds of subjects. She is best known for her portraits of a great variety of famous people that extend through the years from filmmaker Orson Welles to the Queen.
The documentary follows Jane Bown and her son as they retrace the earlier years of her life through old family photographs and revisiting old places. In this respect the film is also a sensitive study on both memory and history, which the photographic image itself can only retain so much of. For Bown, her early family life was one of sadness, in that she has no clear memory of her father, and was unable to resolve her bitterness toward her mother right up until her death. Bown was brought up in Dorset by several different aunts and, throughout her younger years, she “adopted people, and latched on to families.” Unsure of what to do with her life, Bown enrolled on a photography course. Although she admits she lacked the attention and discipline, her talent did not go unnoticed. Her break came when she was commissioned to take Bertrand Russell’s (not knowing who he was) photograph for The Observer. For Bown, The Observer, would become her adopted family and home, and a place she did not dream of ever leaving, as photography helped her secure the borders and perimeters of her life.
The film, with well-crafted simplicity, alternates interview scenes with slideshows of her photographs, respectfully excluding narration over the photographs themselves, and thus drawing attention to the stillness and silence of them. This allows the viewer to take in Bown’s work, and stresses the power of portrait photography, even within its formal tradition, in how it transcends the moment in which the photograph was taken to reveal something else. In this, Bown was an expert; as her skills also lay in reportage and character assessment, she was able to get under the surface by lulling her subjects into a false sense of security. As one of her colleagues remarked in the film, “she was good at being a nobody”, she did not disclose anything about herself, but just made people feel at ease in her company. Self-effacing? Yes. Tenacious? Not so much. Her great skill lies in finding the photograph, not simply taking it.
Looking for Light: Jane Bown is released nationwide on 25th April 2014.