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Remembering Jane Brown Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

22 December 2014

At the age of 89, the Observer's Jane Brown has left us. She would, however, argue that she left long ago. When digital imaging came in, she went out.

She began working at the Observer in December 1949 after a brief stint as a child photographer and studies in photography at Guildford College under Ifor Thomas. She may, as she said, have gone out as digital came in, but she never really left.

Still, the world she inhabited was distinctly different from the modern age.

She may have taken a selfie (posing with her camera) but she never taught a course, published a how-to book or wrote a blog. She didn't bother turning herself into a brand.

In fact, just the opposite. She believed "photographers should neither be seen nor heard" and carried her Olympus camera hidden in a wicker shopping basket, working with only natural light. And she was gone 10 minutes after she'd arrived.

'I spent my whole life worrying about time and light.'

The result? "Nobody has taken so many wonderful photographs of so many great faces, with such little fuss as Jane Brown," picture editor Eamon McCabe said.

Her breakthrough image was a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell for the Observer. It was also her first commission for the publication, received via telegram, the text messaging device of the day. The job was to photograph the imposing Russell at breakfast with his new wife, Dora. Jane was "terrified, absolutely terrified," she recalled.

The portrait, in profile, is high contrast with just the hint of a smile. "I spent my whole life worrying about time and light," she once said. High contrast was just one approach she used. You can appreciate her approach with the Guardian's A Life in Photography -- In Pictures and The Complete Jane Brown.

Time and light did not include color for Jane Brown. She did shoot some color work as those galleries show, but she was not fond of it. She hated it. Black and white was her game. Like X-rays, in fact.

She applied that vision not only to the famous but to those who were not at all famous. Her image of the Ashbrittle church cleaner and a solitary figure in Earls Court underground station are as studied and incisive as her portraits of the famous.

The United Nations of Photography has posted an audio recording of a conversation with her in 2009 in which she discusses her approach to photography.

Her friend, assistant and archivist Luke Dodd posted a reminiscence of her as well.

"Born out of wedlock in 1925," Dodd writes, "she was passed around maternal aunts, 'it was like pass the parcel,' until one day when she was 12 she realized that Aunt Daisy, her favorite, was in fact her mother."

If not exactly a nativity story, Dodd finds this significance in it:

Photographs have an inherent sadness, they appear to arrest time when in fact all they do, ultimately, is draw attention to its passing. An intuitive understanding of sadness informs all of Jane's work, which is maybe why she only works in black and white.

She didn't think her work would be of lasting importance but it is hard to look away from it. She caught life in her lens as it flashed by, fame as fleeting as the plight of ordinary lives was enduring. In striving to be unnoticed she created work that can not be ignored.

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