Jane Bown

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Jane Hope Bown CBE (13 March 1925 – 21 December 2014) was an English photographer who worked for The Observer newspaper from 1949. Her portraits, primarily photographed in black and white and using available light, received widespread critical acclaim and her work has been described as "a kind of English Cartier-Bresson."[1][2]

Life and work[edit]

Bown was born in Eastnor, Herefordshire on 13 March 1925. She described her childhood as happy, brought up in Dorset by women whom she believed to be her aunts. Bown said she was upset to realise, at the age of twelve, that one of them was her mother and her birth was illegitimate. This discovery precipitated her into delinquent behaviour in her adolescence, and acting coldly towards her mother.[3] She first worked as a chart corrector with the WRNS, which included a role in plotting the D-Day invasion, and this employment entitled her to an education grant.[3] She then studied photography at Guildford College under Ifor Thomas.[3][2]

Bown began her career as a wedding portrait photographer until 1951, when Thomas put her in touch with Mechthild Nawiasky, a picture editor at The Observer. Nawiasky showed her portfolio to editor David Astor who was impressed and immediately commissioned her to photograph the philosopher Bertrand Russell.[2]

In 1954, Bown married the fashion retail executive Martin Moss.[2] They had three children, Matthew, Louisa, and Hugo, and Moss pre-deceased her in 2007.[2][3]

Bown worked primarily in black-and-white and preferred to use available light. Until the early 1960s, she worked primarily with a Rolleiflex camera. Subsequently Bown used a 35mm Pentax SLR, before settling on the Olympus OM-1 camera, often using an 85mm lens.[2][3] She photographed hundreds of subjects, including Orson Welles, Samuel Beckett, Sir John Betjeman, Woody Allen, Cilla Black, Quentin Crisp, P. J. Harvey, John Lennon, Truman Capote, John Peel, the gangster Charlie Richardson, Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Evelyn Waugh, Brassai and Margaret Thatcher. She took Queen Elizabeth II's eightieth birthday portrait.[4]

Bown's extensive photojournalism output includes series on Hop Pickers, evictions of Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, Butlin's holiday resort, the British Seaside, and in 2002, Glastonbury festival. Her social documentary and photojournalism was mostly unseen before the release of her book Unknown Bown 1947–1967 in 2007.

In 2007 her work from Greenham Common was selected by Val Williams and Susan Bright as part of How We Are: Photographing Britain, the first major survey of photography to be held at Tate Britain.

In 2014, directors Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte released a documentary about Bown, Looking For Light, featuring conversations with Bown about her life and interviews with those she photographed and worked with, including Edna O'Brien, Lynn Barber and Richard Ashcroft.[5][6]

In June 2014, Jane was awarded an honorary degree from the University for the Creative Arts[7]

On 21 December 2014, Bown died at the age of 89.[8] Paying tribute to her work, Lord Snowdon described her as "a kind of English Cartier-Bresson" who produced "photography at its best. She doesn't rely on tricks or gimmicks, just simple, honest recording, but with a shrewd and intellectual eye."[2]



  • 1980-1: The Gentle Eye, National Portrait Gallery, London.
  • 2003: Rock 1963–2003. 10 September 2003 – 24 October 2003, Guardian Newsroom, London.[12]
  • 2007-8: Unknown Bown 1947–1967, Guardian Newsroom, London.
  • 2007: How We Are: Photographing Britain, Tate Britain. With others. Includes Bown's work from Greenham Common.
  • 2011: National Portrait Gallery, London.


  • The Gentle Eye (1980)
  • Women of Consequence (1986)
  • Men of Consequence (1987)
  • The Singular Cat (1988)
  • Pillars of the Church (1991)
  • Observer (1996)
  • Faces: The Creative Process Behind Great Portraits (2000)
  • Rock 1963–2003 (2003)
  • Unknown Bown 1947–1967 (2007)
  • Exposures (2009)



  1. ^ "The complete Jane Bown: a lifetime in photographs". The Guardian. 22 October 2009. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Jane Bown – obituary". Telegraph.co.uk. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Dodd, Luke (21 December 2014). "Jane Bown obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  4. ^ Bown, Jane. "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, February 2006". royalcollection.org.uk. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  5. ^ "Looking For Light". Hot Property Films. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  6. ^ "Inconspicuous presence behind the camera". fhefword.org.uk. 23 April 2014. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  7. ^ http://www.ucreative.ac.uk/news/2014/june/three-new-honorary-graduates-announced#.VK_8siusXpU
  8. ^ "Revered Observer photographer Jane Bown dies aged 89". The Guardian. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  9. ^ Dodd, Luke (2 April 2006). "Happy birthday, ma'am (and to you too, Jane)". The Observer. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  10. ^ "Jane Bown". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  11. ^ "RPS Honorary Fellowships". Royal Photographic Society. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  12. ^ "Rock, an exhibition of Jane Bown's rock and pop portraits (1963–2003)". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  13. ^ "House of Commons – list of works of art with prices" (PDF). parliament.uk. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  14. ^ "Jane Bown (photographer), National Portrait Gallery". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 


External links[edit]