Jane Bown, portrait photographer

It's an exciting time to be a wedding photographer.

Digital photography has largely superseded film photography in the past 15 years, and it has revolutionised the way wedding photographers work, bringing in a myriad of new working practices. At the same time it has allowed access of professional grade cameras to a wider group of people. With no single organising body overseeing the industry and the barrier of entry so low, it has led to a lot of different photographic wedding styles and techniques. 

As a wedding photographer I believe I have a duty to not slavishly copy these styles, which can easily become fads that go out of fashion. One way I try and prevent myself from simply copying the prevailing trends in the wedding industry is to look into the history of photography. By doing so, I hope that I will be able to put a particular style or trend, and my own work, into context.

To that end I buy and read books about the history of photography, and watch as many documentaries and television programmes about photographers as I can. I hope that by allowing influences outside of the traditional wedding imagery to infuse my work, it will set me apart from my contemporaries and avoid my work becoming dated.

The last documentary I watched was Looking for Light: Jane Bown.

Jane Bown self portrait 

Even if you haven't heard of Jane you will almost certainly be familiar with her work. In the 60 years she worked for the Observer newspaper she took hundreds of portraits of (amongst others) Orson Welles, Samuel Beckett, Sir John Betjeman, Woody Allen, Cilla Black, Quentin Crisp, P. J. Harvey, John Lennon, Truman Capote, John Peel, the gangster Charlie Richardson, Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Evelyn Waugh, Brassai and Margaret Thatcher.

In her 80th year she took photographs of Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday.

My own favourite photograph of hers is the portrait of Samuel Beckett.

Jane Bown portrait of Samuel Beckett

Jane shot in a very simple, unfussy way. Her preferred camera was the Olympus OM1, which she used with a 50mm or 85mm lens and no lights or flash. She famously used to turn up to the shoot with her cameras in a plastic shopping bag!

Jane only need ten or fifteen minutes with her subjects. She would typically place them in a chair next to a window and then take no more than two or three rolls of film to get her shot. Virtually all of the photographs of her entire career were black and white and she used Kodak Tri-X almost exclusively.

Jane Bown portrait of Sinead O'Connor

I loved hearing people talk about her shooting style in the documentary, and the sheer simplicity of her equipment. It really does demonstrate that the six inches behind the camera is the most important element of good photography.

My own favourite film camera was an Olympus OM20 and this documentary made me nostalgic for it, and the days when I used to shoot film. I'd love to pick up an OM1 and try to emulate Jane's way of shooting in the future. Shooting black and white film portraits would make for a great project.

Perhaps in the New Year...