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Remembering Jane Bown: The Observer's Legendary Photographer
Jane Bown, a veteran photographer for The Observer, passed away in 2014 at the age of 89, just four months shy of her 90th birthday. Bown was a part of The Observer's DNA, having worked for the newspaper for over 50 years. She was known for producing some of the most memorable and insightful images of prominent cultural and political figures taken during the 20th century.
Bown was particularly famous for her portraits of the rich, famous, infamous, and unknown. Her trademark images of her subjects were cherished by many. She was made an MBE in 1985, a CBE in 1995, and although she was too frail to take photographs by then, she last appeared in The Observer offices in August.
Throughout her life, Bown worried about time and light. She worked on 35mm film to the end, meekly waiting for assignments and turning in dazzlingly beautiful images for news stories and features. She was loved by her colleagues and adored by readers.
Photographer and former picture editor Eamon McCabe said: “Nobody has taken so many wonderful photographs of so many great faces, with such little fuss as Jane Bown. She was a reluctant star, hating the attention of being well known herself.”
When other photographers of her generation were selling their archives for small fortunes, Bown donated hers to The Guardian, the parent company of her beloved Observer. Archivist Luke Dodd, who became her friend and biographer in a recent film made with Michael Whyte, said she was without vanity. “It was always about the picture, not about her, and she worked with what she had. That famous Beckett image, which has been reproduced so many times, was the third of five frames.”
Bown had perfected a disguise as a respectable little middle-class woman from Hampshire, which fooled many. She carried her camera in a wicker basket, worked without extra lights, and liked to be done and dusted within 10 minutes.
Jane Bown's contribution to The Observer's history, as well as to Britain's artistic legacy, is immense and will long survive her. She will be remembered as one of the greatest photographers of her generation.