Jane Bown exhibition at the TopFotoGallery, Edenbridge

Yesterday, I visited the TopFotoGallery in Edenbridge to view the Jane Bown “Exposures” exhibition.

In her eighties now, Bown is mostly known for her portrait work at The Observer, which started way back in 1949. This long relationship with the paper has led her to photograph the great and good from the past sixty years. Bown developed a quick way of working, capturing candid portraits, yet revealing the private side of many of her famous subjects.

Bown’s working practises have remained the same throughout the years; she shows great allegiance to her 40 year old Olympus OM1s, shooting no more than two rolls of film at a time, always just available light, metering from the back of her hand. One of her most famous portraits is that of Samuel Beckett from 1979. The shot was taken in an alleyway by the Royal Court Theatre. Bown only took five frames with the third shot being ‘the one’.

Viewing the fifty or so portraits in the exhibition, it was interesting to see the quality of the shots which have all been taken on film. I’m so used to the digital images that I shoot these days; it’s been nearly ten years since I last on shot film. The cameras have improved so much since the early models came out, which were expensive and produced small files. As technology moves on, the balance has tipped the other way, with much more affordable cameras producing fantastic large files. Bown’s images show the qualities you get with film. There’s great tonal range to the prints and often a graininess due to fast film being used with available light indoors. Some of the images look soft, which could be a focusing thing, the cropping and enlarging or the film used but nothing detracts from the content of the image and the way she captures her subjects.

David Bailey describes Bown in the foreword of the accompanying book as “shy, modest and charming in equal measure”. Good qualities to have when you’re dealing with larger than life characters.

Woody Allen (1994) and Jayne Mansfield (1967)

Zsa Zsa Gabor (1968) and Cilla Black (1967)

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