In The Guardian
She’s always preferred being behind the camera, but from her childhood passed around a circle of aunts to her time as a Wren in the second world war, Jane Bown had a story to tell – and it took her friend and assistant Luke Dodd to persuade her to tell it…
She claimed that her portrait photography came about because of her reputation for working rapidly and for mastering the most adverse circumstances or awkward individuals. An ideal shoot for Jane was 10 minutes, enough time to really see the subject but not enough for the initial spontaneity to disappear. She cornered the most reluctant of subjects, Samuel Beckett, in a dark alley down the side of the Royal Court theatre as he tried to give her the slip. His enmity is palpable but he stood long enough for her to expose five frames. It was all over in less than 30 seconds – the middle frame is now regarded as the archetypal Beckett portrait.
Samuel Beckett, leaving the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London in 1976 Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer
She became a photographer in 1946 when, as a recently demobbed Wren, she applied, on a whim, to the UK’s only full-time photography course at the Guildford School of Art. Although she didn’t own a camera and had never taken a picture and the course was already over-subscribed, its director, Ifor Thomas, accepted her as he had also worked in the navy during the war. Painfully shy, she sat looking out of the window for the first two terms and the teacher almost gave up on her. With £50 borrowed from an aunt, Jane purchased her first camera, a Rolleiflex, and the world came into focus. She still talks of these early photos – abstract studies, still-lives, Gypsy children, fairgrounds, farm-workers – as her best work, adding, “I was never really interested in people or portraits – that came later … I was happiest moving about seeing things, still am. These pictures are the real me.”
‘Sharp-elbowed‘: Jane Bown among a scrum of male photographers fighting for a shot of Bette Davis at the London Palladium in 1975. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
Looking for Light: Jane Bown is out this week. The DVD is out on 26 May. An exhibition of Bown’s work runs at Kings Place, London N1, until 31 May.
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