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Soul-searching with a camera

02 May 2014

By Stephen Brown


MANY came to admire Jane Bown (above, in a self-portrait taken in a mirror) through her photographs in The Observer. There is a stunning luminosity about them which is truly soul-searching. In the documentary Looking for Light: Jane Bown (Cert. 12), there is a great deal about souls, hers and others'.

This is hardly surprising, as Michael Whyte interrupted his sequence of faith movies - No Greater Love (about Carmelite nuns) and Relics and Roses (the UK tour of St Thérèse of Lisieux's remains) - to co-direct this with Luke Dodd. The film (in colour, unlike Bown's photography) is sometimes repetitive; nor is it always easy on the ear. Its overall effect, though, is similar to gazing on icons or looking through stained glass "and there the heav'n espy".

Bown's laconic responses redirect us to her pictures. The film periodically goes into silent mode, letting photographs speak for themselves. From Bertrand Russell to Desmond Tutu, just about anybody who has been anybody over the past sixty years is revealed in new light. She shows people as they would want to be known ("the light behind the eyes" as Edna O'Brien puts it), drawing out the very essence of her sitters. It is never flattery, but, like a pet dog, she approaches famous subjects usually knowing next to nothing about them. A journalist colleague whom Bown would accompany to interviews says that she would unobtrusively circumnavigate the person until she found what she was looking for. "Ah yes. There you are," she would say, and then begin photographing.

Bown would be too modest to compare her use of her talent to Michelangelo's notion of freeing the angel lying within the block of stone. She would prefer to say, together with cultures that believe that taking someone's photograph steals his or her soul, that she finds photographs within the people.

The Observer and Guardian feature-writer Sean O'Hagan applies Henri Cartier-Bresson's dictum to Bown that, in creating a good portrait, you are always looking for the silence within or around someone. Bown's picture of Samuel Beckett backstage at the Royal Court Theatre gives us the abiding gravity of that writer, and reminds us of our aloneness. Jane Bown claims to have known happiness only when using a camera, and, pushing 90, remains to this day guilt-ridden about how she treated her unmarried mother.

Considering her upbringing by various aunts, she feels a bit like pass-the-parcel, where the string is becoming undone and the brown paper is in bits. These inner hurts, however, may well have assisted her ability, as the singer Richard Ashworth describes it, to enter into another's soul. When visiting relatives' graves in Eastnor churchyard, Herefordshire (the Team Vicar and parish are mentioned in the closing credits), her restless soul takes comfort from the epitaph on a headstone: "My presence shall go with thee and I shall give thee rest" (Exodus 33.14).

She also relates that, when she was working with the journalist John Gale, he started every interview with "What are you hoping for? Do you believe in God? and what would you like for your birthday breakfast?" Bown's answers are that she hopes to resolve her beginning (regrets over mother, no doubt) as much as her end; wants Grape-Nuts for breakfast, and believes in God, "probably, in my fashion".

Not everyone will see the film in this way, of course, but there's something of divine enquiry in how her camera opens windows into our souls' shades of grey. As she says at the start of the film, life is a mystery.

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