Monday, April 21, 2014

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (2014) directed by Luke Dodd & Michael White


Looking for Light is a confident and modest documentary structured with intelligence and close attention to detail.  This buttoned-down precision matches the temperament of its subject: legendary Observer photographer Jane Bown.  Bown, responsible for photographing the luminaries interviewed in the Sunday paper, appears to have shot every major personality of the last 60 or so years.  From Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan and Elizabeth II to Bj√∂rk, Jarvis Cocker and er, David Gray.  

Born in 1925, the 2013 Jane Bown embodies some platonic Grannyesque ideal. She lives in a comfy house in the English countryside, replete with slightly faded black and white framed photos, china geegaws and a friendly cat. You almost smell the milky tea and taste the custard cream biscuits. She's an enigmatic woman, given to smiling at private jokes and staring off into the distance while making gnomic statements, the significance of which is obvious to her alone.

A decent slice of the documentary is devoted to unravelling the whys and hows of Jane Bown, trying to decode her personality from her personal history. At work she's quiet and unassuming, reporters tell us of her flitting around them as they conduct an interview, shooting pictures with cool, confident professionalism. Bown repeatedly explains that The Observer newspaper office was and somehow always will be her true home. She's apparently speaking literally, describing washing and drying her hair in the dark room. Even though The Observer has now moved to King's Cross she still spends time hanging out in the lobby, chatting to a steady stream of her former colleagues, all of whom are delighted to see her and happily stop to have a natter.

Bjork by Jane Bown
Refreshingly (considering some recent art documentaries) Bown's work is presented beautifully and treated with the gravitas it deserves.  It's a testament to her aesthetic skills that by far the best portions of the film are silent slideshows of her black and white portraits.  This is brilliant minimalist cinema, the directors confident enough to let Bown's work stand alone without distracting commentary or even much context.  As we lock stares with the leading lights of the 20th century, we sense that these portraits captures some essence of their being.  Possibly this is us projecting what we'd like to see onto the subjects, yet there's a gleam in the eyes and a kind of statuesque permanence in the greys and deep blacks surrounding them.

The best is an astonishing portrait of a grumpy Samuel Beckett, snapped in a hurry outside a stage door. With a face like a beaten up leather glove, wiry hair and deep eyes he looks hewn from steel – simultaneously sad, confident and perceptive.  I get a bit peeved at 'artist' photographers; an Instagram feed of squirrels in parks and boho junk shops tinted sepia does not an artist make.  Yet confronted with this body of work it's impossible to deny that Bown has some unique combination of technical ability, aesthetic instinct and perfect timing that allows her to clearly capture the essence of her subject.

Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown
This documentary aims for the same clarity, conducting a photographic archaeological excavation into Bown's past.  This is where the film comes a little unstuck. Bown's childhood and ancestry is mildly diverting stuff, and her being shuttled from family to family as a child certainly impacted upon her adult personality – yet a touch too much time is devoted to it. There are moments where we're poring through boxes of dog-eared faded photographs of the long-dead when you feel as if you're trapped with an much-loved, yet slightly boring great aunt. It's a pity,  Bown is by far at her most interesting when she's engaged in discussions of her work rather than her roots and the director's insistence on dwelling on gravestones and family trees feels a touch heavyhanded – forcing her into the role of a 'granny' rather than 'artist'.

Similarly slightly disappointing are the interviews with Bown's colleagues and friends. Bown admittedly seems like a lovely person to know and work with, yet the constant singing of her praises means that we all too often stray into the realm of hagiography rather than actual analysis of what her work and life add up to. There's also a somewhat odd out-of-place interview with Richard Ashcroft, who appears to have no connection to Bown other than being photographed by her once – he subsequently claims that they “fell in love” during the session, a claim that sounds a touch bizarre.

This the strength of the material shines through – how could it not?  Though things are a bit padded at times, this is a film that knows its strengths lie in Bown's amazing black and white photography. When this is front and centre the film approaches the sublime, allowing us to drift silently in a sea of texture, shadow and gradients. Watching this in a cinema the size of the pictures only adds to their impact, trumping flicking through them in a book or online any day.

But in actually understanding the whos and whys of Mary Bown the film comes up short. By the time the credits roll we know about her childhood and her photographic commandments – but as a person she remains mysterious and opaque.  In the end it's the newspaper she worked for that came to define her identity; she's not a participant so much as a quiet, attentive and artful 'observer' – no wonder she's such a such a successful photographer.

★★★

Looking for Light: Jane Bown is released April 25th

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