Looking for Light: Jane Bown

In the almost six decades that Bown worked for The Observer, she became renowned for insightful, highly individualistic portraits of the famous. Some of these portraits are now regarded as classics of the genre - Samuel Beckett, Queen Elizabeth II, The Beatles, Bertrand Russell, Mick Jagger and Margaret Thatcher. For the first time, she spoke candidly about her career and revealed how her very personal approach to the taking of portraits is informed by a deep sense of loss and abandonment. This private portrait is enhanced by a series of insightful interviews with Jane’s peers, family, colleagues, friends, and of course some of her subjects.


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  • ★★★★ review by Chris Hormann on Letterboxd

    If you don't know Jane Bown, you will likely be familiar with some of her work as a photographer, covering everything from young gypsy girls to the Queen and all in black and white. And while her work is stunning, this doco succeeds in slowly peeling back the layers of the person behind the lens - on one side, incredibly humble but also someone who described herself as having elbows as sharp as anyone. A fascinating life.

  • ★★★★ review by Colette Cassidy on Letterboxd

    This documentary had no narrative which was refreshing as it let Jane Bown and her pictures speak for themselves. A must for film goers and photographers.

  • ★★★★½ review by Mike O'Brien on Letterboxd

    A film that takes the time to discover something of the person, and linger lovingly on those remarkable photos.

  • ★★★½ review by Stuart Pilkington on Letterboxd

    When people say something is Emperor's Clothes what they are really saying is that either they don't understand what they are seeing or that it is not to their taste. So when I felt myself saying that about the work of photographer Jane Brown I pulled myself back from the brink.

    I was familiar with the amazing black and white portrait of Samuel Beckett as either I, or a friend, had it on my/their wall at University. However, I wasn't so familiar with the rest of her oeuvre. And so I am purely relying on the many portraits they showed in this interesting documentary. Brown was known for not using a light meter and always choosing an aperture of 2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second and hence the title of the film she would literally look for the light in a room to suit these settings. And this I think is where the problem lies with her images. Some hit the nail on the head gloriously like one of Bjork and another of Truman Capote but many are listless and the palette of greys are weak and uninspiring. But this is just my own prejudice and taste. She was regarded as one of the best and so who am I to say differently.

    It is a well made documentary with interviews with her and people who worked with her and knew her and other people who were inspired by her like Rankin. She reminds me of Jilly Cooper who is another person who is perfectly nice but has this slightly uptight upper middle class note to her voice. It's as if the stiff upper lip attitude has permeated into these people and all the emotional baggage that everyone picks up through life has tightened in them like a corkscrew. It was interesting nonetheless to hear how she worked and how she got started. And in a way her early work that was not celebrity based nor portrait based was better.

    And it's the number of amazing individuals she has met and photographed: philosophers, poets, film directors, politicians, queens etc that strikes you. Some of the names feel like mythological creatures but what she was very good at was finding the 'small' in people - the person as opposed to the myth.

    I would recommend watching this film and at the very least it makes you want to go out and buy a book and see more of her work.

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