What To Put On Your Walls (Part 1): Portrait Photography

It’s all in the eyes. Whether the subject of a photograph is family, friend or famous, a great portrait focuses on their eyes, and draws the viewer in. Usually captured in black and white, the right portrait can be a great addition to your wall either as a stand-alone piece or as part of an “exhibition” style set or cluster of art. Many people choose an iconic photograph of a celebrity, often from the world of film or music, with the work of British portrait photographers from the 1960s proving particularly popular.

Jan Bown, self portrait

One icon of this era was Jane Bown. Jane Bown was a staff photographer at the Observer newspaper for over fifty years, from 1949 until shortly just before her death in 2014 at the age of 89. She was a legendary photographer who produced a large and consistent body of imagery over her career, working on 35mm film and almost exclusively in black and white until the end of her career. She was famous for using only natural light, favouring indirect sunlight from a north facing window to allow her to shoot at her preferred setting of f2.8 at 1/60 second. If she expected the light to be bad then, rather than use flash, she would set out (usually on the bus) to an assignment with the Observer picture editor’s anglepoise desk lamp in hand. Bown was known to be uninterested in her equipment – she bought all of her cameras second hand and carried them in a wicker basket, and ignored the cameras inbuilt light-meter in favour of judging how the light fell on the back of her outstretched hand.

Playwright Samuel Beckett

Bown had the unique ability when shooting portraits of the famous to produce iconic images from informal settings, putting her subject at ease and often completing the shoot within ten minutes or capturing portraits whilst they were being interviewed. These candid moments featuring some of the most iconic faces of the last 65 years were donated to the Guardian (the parent company of the Observer) and stand as a record of modern British popular culture over that period. You can enquire about purchasing prints of Jane Bown’s photography by contacting The Guardian directly, and in doing so, support British photojournalism.

Mick Jagger
Michael Caine
Poet John Betjeman - photographed by Bown here in Cornwall, at Daymer Bay.