A beacon of light for the Observer

A beacon of light for the Observer

Looking for the Light: Jane Bown is a tribute to the woman who served as the Observer’s portrait photographer from 1949 until her retirement, although, pushing 90, she still turns up at the office to say hello.  Bown is not particularly vocal, perhaps because she has spent the last 60 years behind the camera not in front of it. While her dutiful and loving son wheels her around a family graveyard and a few talking heads sing her praises and provide interesting anecdotes, it is the photos that do the talking.

The Observer was more than a job it was her home. “I used to wash my hair in the dark room,” Bown confesses.  It was also her family, and we see a photo (for once, not taken by her), showing Lord Astor (1912-2001), the Observer’s editor for 27 years, giving Jane away at her marriage.  That said, Bown was apparently an impressive homemaker as well and was very much Mrs. Moss to her late husband, Martin Moss, a fashion retail executive, and  mother to her two children.

Although Bown was well respected at the paper and admired for being the only female photographer, not many people outside the Observer knew who she was.  She was so unobtrusive and inoffensive that she made everyone feel instantly relaxed.  Apparently that was Ms Bown’s modus operandi and secret weapon.  According to sitter Edna O’Brien, ‘she was very good at being nobody. She didn’t disclose anything about herself.” O’Brien felt that Bown wanted to preserve a distance, and in so doing, ‘what she did was get here – behind the eyes.’

The documentary, by Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte, is at its best when showing us Bown photographs, some of which would be considered works of art in the National Portrait Gallery, let alone photos in the daily paper.  One of her most famous is the seldom photographed Samuel Beckett with his famous rugged and wrinkled but handsome face, standing next to a brick wall, a bright face in surrounding darkness.

We are also treated to shots of Jean Cocteau, Tennessee Williams, Simone Signoret, Margaret Thatcher, Desmond Tutu, Anthony Blunt, a young David Barenboim and Tom Hanks, Rudolph Nureyev, Eartha Kit, Frances Beacon, Richard Harris and Mick Jagger, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and more.

Unfortunately, we learn almost nothing about the sitters who are a who’s who of the second half of the 20th century.   It could be because often, particularly with current singers and performers, Bown herself would not know the identity of the sitter.  She seems to have found their essence in the short time allotted for the purposes of the photo and was not interested in gossip.

‘I like to go in first’ she tells us. ‘Once the journalist goes in they never stop talking and I would get worried that I wouldn’t have enough time.’  Jane Bown never owned a light meter. Instead, according to an interviewee, ‘she would case out the room, not to steal anything, but looking for the light.’  Winter was therefore not her favourite season, but, whatever the weather, Bown tells us, ‘every minute that I took photographs, I was happy.’

Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer