Dear John ~ A Household Treasure


We see it every day. Or do we? Do we actually see, as in look and engage? We certainly pass by it night and morning and at times in between. It hangs on the bedroom wall, beside the spiral staircase, this portrait of John Lennon by stellar photographer and photojournalist, Jane Bown. And how do we come to have this particular treasure?

From 1949 and over the next 6 decades Jane Bown (1925-2014) was the The Observer newspaper’s photographer (The Observer being the sister Sunday paper of The Guardian weekly i.e in the days before its 2008 sell-off). Some time in the early 2000s, not long after we had repatriated ourselves after eight years in Kenya and Zambia, and were living in Kent, The Guardian offices in Farringdon Road, London, announced it was having a small exhibition of Bown’s work, not only portraits but also the chance to look at the contact sheets from particular shoots. There would also be the opportunity to  buy one of the limited edition reprints. So: one Saturday morning we took ourselves off to the capital by train, not a small event for two dislocated souls not then caught up with the way things worked in the home nation.

The key thing about Jane Bown’s work is she always used natural light – never deploying flash or even using a light meter.

Famously reluctant to talk about her working method, Jane once admitted that for the brief moment when she looked at somebody through a lens, what she felt could best be described in terms of an intense love.

Quote from the Guardian Print Shop site.

But to go back to the earlier question of how far we engage with the objects we surround ourselves with. Doubtless many have sentimental attachments – gifts, mementos, inherited items from loved ones; some are domestic tools, artefacts for cooking, home maintenance, cleaning, eating, and therefore deemed essential; others are specially acquired assemblages: dolls, snow globes, china pigs, model cars, snuff boxes, original art, books, orchids: stuff. Of course, given the quantity of possessions most of us house, if we gave due consideration to each and every one of them each day there would be no time to do anything else. There could be an element of the King Midas curse in this?

And the portrait of John Lennon? There is no doubting that when his presence is fully acknowledged, the times I stop and behold, he does feel like a presence. The keenness of gaze is almost too poignant. I start wondering what he might say to us now – in these times ‘of lies, damn lies, and statistics’. I’m thinking he might tell us to WAKE UP!

You can see more of Jane Bown’s magnificent work HERE,  HERE and HERE.


Lens-Artists: Everyday objects

60 thoughts on “Dear John ~ A Household Treasure

  1. A thought-provoking piece, Tish. After having just returned home from being away for 10 days I think I shall have to observe my home surroundings with a different eye today.

    I always had a sense that John Lennon was a little too fragile for this world. I think this photo of him captures that raw, sensitive element.

    1. I like your description of John, Joanne, but that’s also making me wonder if the things he stood up for are also too fragile for this world. Or is it up to us to stand up for them and give them resilience. At the moment we seem to be like rabbits caught in the headlights.

  2. what a wonderful treasure indeed, tish. john saw the world in a different way from most, and the world seemed not yet ready for him –

  3. A marvelous post, Tish! I didn’t know about Jane Bown’s work. It is fabulous. I love how she captured the vulnerability of Lennon and a hint of his cheeky humor, too. I also love how you explain what this image means to you. What would he say? Love one another, instead of hate? Beautifully done, Tish.

    1. What a lovely comment. Thanks so much, Patti. Am also happy that I’ve made an introduction. Jane Bown is so worth studying. She makes one look at her (often familiar) subjects with fresh eyes too.

  4. What an extraordinary photographer, Jane Bown, was. I am enchanted by this first encounter with her work. I particularly enjoyed the char ladies at the Foreign Office and wonder if char ladies exist anymore. And you certainly have a treasure in John Lennon’s portrait. As for how diligently we look at ‘stuff’, it’s hard to say. But I do know that during a recent excursion into my jewelry box, I was shocked to realize how much of its contents I had forgotten.

    1. I would strongly suspect that char ladies don’t exist any more, though maybe in the FO they still use that term! These days it’s all cleaning agency operatives. As for forgetting what one’s got tucked away, I am too too guilty of that. I have periodic ‘culls’, but still don’t seem to get to the bottom of it. Books are bothersome too, the endless do I/don’t I need this debate, and all the dust gathering while I ponder on same. Lately I’ve been day-dreaming of a big skip to dump it all in, but then I know that wouldn’t really work. The things we cling to!

  5. Stuff! It is every where and during this ‘downtime’ having managed to get rid of a lot of stuff…there is still more. But my kids may have to get rid of the remaining stuff. lol

  6. Jane Bown was a marvellous photographer who knew how to get a portrait to give the essence of the sitter. One of my photographic heroines

  7. Lovely post Tish, very thoughtful and of course the Lennon portrait is a treasure! I smiled at your description of the train trip after 8 years away! Times were simpler then weren’t they?

    1. There were occasions when we just went home again as trying to buy a train ticket from a non-human operated station proved too problematical. So yes, Tina, times were simpler ‘back then’.

  8. I recognised so many of the portraits in your links but am ashamed to say I’d never bothered to find out who the photographer was. Now I know, I’m with Sue — a heroine.

    I share your “can I just get a big skip” fantasies, but realise that over the years I’ve been applying William Morris’s dictum about beauty and usefulness, and apart from some tweaking as my tastes change, I have what I need and love. The books though — when we eventually downsize, I will be in real trouble.

    1. So happy to provide an intro to Jane Bown, Su. Amongst our humungous book collection we have a very nice book of her photos. Apart from books my other nightmare accretion: paper, piles and piles of it in files and filing cabinets. Maybe I should shred and compost it.

      1. 😬 I’d conveniently forgotten about the file boxes of papers, most of which are now rather old and could similarly be composted.

      2. I am glowering at the filing cabinets beside my writing table. I’m especially threatening the piles of duplicate printouts of family census stuff – surely they could be reduced to a sensible narrative and leave me with an empty drawer?!

  9. I have a phobia about flash or “lighting” too. I don’t like the flatness you get with flash and “lighting” is for commercial products. I worked with light in a studio and it was interesting, but other than that, I just don’t like lighting. But there are times — especially if you are shooting in very low light — when you have to choose to use lighting of some kind, or not take the picture. i usually don’t take the picture.

  10. amazing how what we have around us soon disappears into the background, yet at the time we acquired it we could never stop looking at it or appreciating it.

    Our world needs to be kinder, but something seems to happen to people once they are in power, whether than political or financial – the kindness disappears 😦

  11. It’s a magnificent portrait. The place it has in your home reminds me of my childhood home – we had a portrait of Shakespeare. I doubt any of us ever truly contemplated it, but the Bard was always there. I have some stuff that, because it came from parents or sisters, gives rise to a frisson of love as I notice them whether or not I stop to fully engage.

  12. That Image is a treasure of the inspirational kind. “Imagine” makes me weep with a full heart every time I listen to it. He would be outraged to be witnessing America today. And how fortunate for you to have him fill a space in your home.

  13. Hi Tish – as you can tell, I am getting caught up on posts and was not sure how far to go back = and glad I made it to this one.

    I loved your thoughts on presence and items in our house,
    I have an artsy vase I bought for a professor back in 1993 – the class ended and I never gave it to him and I still own it to this day. I sometimes glance at it and recall those early 90s years – and I have a few other memory items – but you are right – often we pass them and nada

    recently we were listening to George Carlin’s skit about “stuff” – it is really good if you get a chance to check out out.

    and I think John Lennon would say this ” It’s been a hard day’s night And I’ve been working like a dog..”

    1. Thank you so much for all those cheering thoughts, Yvette. I love George Carlin. I so wish he could re-manifest himself. He’d have an absolute field day with all that’s going on now. But I like your notion too of what John would be saying, god rest him.

      1. My husband said the same thing – Carlin would be having a field day!
        And it was also interesting how so many of Carlin’s topics seemed timeless – And were still applicable –

      2. So true.
        And he also reminds me of someone so “honed” in their skill – am inspiration to young people starting out careers – to be good at what they do and to keep getting better at it – and to find their niche like Carlin did

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