Jane Bown 1925 – 2014, one of the greats
In stark contrast to her mostly male peers, Jane was supremely uninterested in camera equipment. With some reluctance, she abandoned her beloved Rolliflex in the early 60s, first migrating to a 35mm Pentax before settling on the OIympus OM1 – she owned about a dozen Olympus cameras, all bought secondhand. Throughout her career she referred to herself as a “hack”, and even when her reputation was at it height, she always deferred to the picture editor. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and ignored the camera’s in-built light meter, preferring instead to hold a clenched fist away from her body to see how the light fell on the back of her hand. In fact, Jane once admitted to me that her preferred setting was f2.8 at 1/60 second and that she would, if at all possible, conspire to make the environment work at this setting – indirect sunlight from a north-facing widow would usually achieve it.
Jane tried colour in the mid-60s – largely in response to the launch of the Observer colour supplement – but abandoned it after three years, finding the medium too inflexible. But I think her true motivation had more to do with aesthetics – using available light to dramatise the subject with the infinite gradations of grey between pure black and white provided the subtlety that was her stock in trade. “Colour is too noisy,” she once said. “The eye doesn’t know where to rest.”