If Aborigines believed that a photograph stole the essence of the sitter, then The Observer newspaper’s gifted portrait photographer Jane Bown had a way of capturing people “as if she had a primitive notion of the soul. She would look at them through her lens and suddenly say ‘Ah, yes, there you are.’” So says one of the interviewees in Looking for Light: Jane Bown, an empathetic, melancholy documentary about the photographer, now 89, who started on the paper in 1963 with an assignment to photograph Jean Cocteau.
Bown rarely knows anything about her subjects, shoots fast using natural light, and was so unthreatening, “people took pity on me. They had to be nice.” Indeed, all her subjects look as though they have at long last located a place to be safe. Various colleagues and sitters speak warmly about Bown (Edna O’Brien is very funny) and the elderly Bown appears herself – humane, vague, if a little low-spirited – in snatches of conversation with the clearly fond filmmakers. But a good deal of time is given over to just wordlessly contemplating her best work. I especially love her shot of Andrei Tarkovsky, alert with a sort of moonbeam light in his eyes above a world-dominating moustache.