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You are immediately struck by her piercing blue eyes..these beady eyes are darting around seemingly estimating my features. Jane Bown sits, now in her 90th year, a tiny figure in her enormous high backed armchair.
I’m looking at one of the greatest women photographers of her age. She speaks in staccato sentences, and she has much to speak about. Her Queen Anne home in Hampshire is beautifully decorated in a period style, bar one room which is, wall to wall, her pictures.
Six decades of them, almost exclusively for the Observer. Every time you see one, it seems to be the only representation of the subject that you can ever remember. A sideways headshot of the philosopher Bertrand Russell; a fantastic square on, craggy shot of Samuel Becket.
Her work spans six decades with the newspaper. Her trademark is black and white. She eschews colour and has absolutely no time for digital. She hails from the age when male news photographers were the dominant, the norm, and women were all but unknown, save her.
“I just took my chances,” she says. “I was de-mobbed from the Wrens after the war, and saw one of the courses offered at a local college was photography, and I thought, ‘why not?’”
She is self-deprecating, or modest by degrees until she mentions one thing – “I’m very good at the technical”. Jane Bown is talking shutter speeds, exposures, and focusing. That skill enables her to avoid ever posing her subjects. She grabbed them, one shot, and that was it.
I am distressed to find that she had dug out two shoots she did with me when I took over as presenter of Channel 4 News 25 years ago. There were a hundred shots…perhaps she just could not capture me, I was just too boring. She has caught every Prime minister since Winston Churchill. I ask her about a particularly happy one of Gordon Brown. “Oh he was lovely,” she says.
And Tony Blair, I ask? “Oh he was difficult,” she says, “I just could not get him.” I ask her why not. “I’m not sure there was anything there,” she says with a giggle.
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