Audio interview

Archive: Jane Bown in Conversation

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In 2011 UNP founder and curator spent a morning in conversation with photographer Jane Bown in her Hampshire home.

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. She first worked as a chart corrector with the WRNS, which included a role in plotting the D-Dayinvasion, and this employment entitled her to an education grant. She then studied photography at Guildford School of Art under Ifor Thomas.

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.

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

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.[5]

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

On 21 December 2014, Bown died at the age of 89. 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.”

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