A photographer for broadsheet paper The Observer since 1949, Jane Bown spent the better part of sixty years visually capturing and chronicling an expansive handful of the world’s most distinctive and distinguished icons; a perfectionist whose unassuming approach is synonymous with an unobtrusive but penetrating approach to portraiture. The latest from filmmaker Michael Whyte and visual effects supervisor Luke Dodd – who also worked as Bown’s archivist – Soda Pictures’ Looking for Light: Jane Bown (2014) is a tender, ostensibly minuscule and yet incredibly illuminating documentary that explores the career of a woman who’s lived a remarkable life both in front and behind of the camera.
Expanding upon an initial interview conducted with Bown back in 2005 as her time at The Observer was coming to a close, Dodd and Whyte catch up with the rightly revered photographer now in an older and more pensive state, where the tumultuousness of her vibrant life and long career has taken somewhat of an exhausting, but by no means unwelcome, toll. Looking for Light opens silently with the camera watching Bown in her home as she gazes at the vestiges of a life well lived: a wall of her finest photographs, a basket of film stock and cameras, a box of cherished memories, until she welcomingly intones “I do think the way a life goes is extraordinary. When I think about it, it’s been a strange journey, hasn’t it?” What follows is a visually extravagant portrait of an existence mapped in pictures.
Interspersed with a wide selection of her renowned black and white works and portraits, from Mick Jagger and Samuel Beckett to Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, Looking for Light sets about mapping Bown’s life by comprising together anecdotes and commentary from her friends and colleagues with gentle interrogation into her familial roots, a topic that sees her expressing guilt and regret. Through moments of candid retrospection Bown opens up and reveals the chequered relationship she had with her mother, details about the father she barely knew and the multiple aunts who raised her in her formative years. This creates a melancholy tone that is countered by Bown’s dry wit and on-the-job stories, the most notable of which concern director Jean Cocteau and his cat in Paris, her time spent backstage with The Beatles and, more recently, enacting her dream of shooting Queen Elizabeth II, with the veritable fruits of such labours proudly shown on screen, like a greatest hits slideshow.
Though largely a biographical work, Dodd and Whyte’s film also explores the subtle contrasts in Bown’s life that have ultimately augmented her career. These largely concern the chequered family life that was quickly, post-Second World War, exchanged for her involvement with paper she referred to as home, a place she remained a staunchly proud contributor to and life-long advocate of. We even see her in present tense visiting the building and catching up with her old friends and co-workers. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary is something of a highlighting of the relationship between photography and memory, as she herself confesses to having already begun losing her immediate recall and needing visual cues to jog her recollection. As a showcasing of the evolution of such a remarkable career, Looking for Light is a stimulating distillation of a life captured on celluloid and a woman who thrived in a predominantly male-driven industry.