Jane Bown (1925-2014) worked for the Observer for 65 years, taking unforgettable images of hundreds of subjects. She used basic equipment and often relied solely on available light and is known for her iconic black and white photographs. She honed a deceptively simple technique to produce her highly distinctive photographs. The GNM Archive holds an extensive collection of her work.
In the 1960s Jane was asked to shoot in colour for the Observer’s colour magazine but was never comfortable using it and abandoned it after three years. She told Luke Dodd, her archivist, in an interview for the Unknown Bown book and exhibition in 2007 that: “In those days, colour was very inflexible - I had to learn to bracket them. With black and white it’s usually possible to salvage something in the darkroom however bad the shoot might have been. And with colour, editors tended to want photo essays and I was always best at the single shot. I’m a one-shot girl, always have been!”
In January 1967 Jane was walking the dog with her young nephew in Knole Park near her Sevenoaks home. They came across a bizarre scene; “the Beatles gathered around a piano in the middle of the park. They were filming Magical Mystery Tour and nobody knew they were there. John was running around with his new toy, a cine camera, filming everything, including me. I had only two roles of [colour] film with me, but took what I could. The sole audience was a row of five little girls, Vita Sackville West’s granddaughters, peeping over the wall of her old home in the park. By this time the band had started dressing pretty oddly, especially John, decked out in flapping, colourful pyjama trouser things with a black coat and those glasses. He was bursting with energy, he was so inquiring, that’s what I remember most”.
Jane had first shot the Beatles backstage at a concert in East Ham in 1963. She told Luke Dodd that during the 1967 accidental encounter John Lennon took footage of her on his cine camera but the film has never emerged.
The photographs were taken on a 35mm Pentax camera. There is no record of them appearing in the Observer colour magazine but copies were kept on file. Black and white copies were made in case they were needed in the future by the newspaper.
These photographs form part of the colour negatives and transparencies portrait series of Jane Bown’s extensive archive which is held at the Guardian News & Media Archive. A catalogue of Jane Bown’s work is available to search online and researchers interested in making an appointment to consult the collection should email the archive team.
Jane Bown’s photojournalism – in pictures
Jane Bown remembered: ‘We had fun, didn’t we?
Jane Bown: The lady behind the lens
What Jane Bown saw: the reportage