Bown was born in Dorset, and first worked as a chart corrector, which included a role in plotting the D-Day invasion. She studied photography at Guildford College under Ifor Thomas. She started out as a child portrait photographer, but got a break in 1949 when she met Mechthild Nawiasky, an Observer picture editor, who asked her to photograph the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Bown married Martin Moss, the fashion retail executive, who died in November 2007.
Bown works primarily in black-and-white, using available light, and a forty-year-old film camera. She has photographed hundreds of subjects, including 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. She took Queen Elizabeth II's eightieth birthday portrait.
Bown's extensive photojournalism output includes series on Hop Pickers, Greenham Common evictions, Butlin's holiday resort, the British Seaside, and in 2002, Glastonbury festival. Her social documentary and photo journalism was mostly unseen before the release of her book Unknown Bown 1947-1967 in 2007.
In 2007 her work on the Greenham Common evictions was selected by Val Williams and Susan Bright as part of How We Are: Photographing Britain, the first major survey of photography to be held at Tate Britain.
Bown was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2000. These are awarded to distinguished persons having, from their position or attainments, an intimate connection with the science or fine art of photography or the application thereof.
In 2014, directors Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte released a documentary about Bown, Looking For Light, featuring conversations with Bown about her life and interviews with those she photographed and worked with, including Edna O'Brien, Lynn Barber and Richard Ashcroft.
- The Gentle Eye, National Portrait Gallery, London (1980-1)
- Rock 1963-2003
- Unknown Bown 1947-1967, Guardian Newsroom, London (2007-8)
- How We Are: Photographing Britain (with others). Includes work from the Greenham Common evictions. Tate Britain, 2007.
- National Portrait Gallery, London (2011)
- The Gentle Eye (1980)
- Women of Consequence (1986)
- Men of Consequence (1987)
- The Singular Cat (1988)
- Pillars of the Church (1991)
- Observer (1996)
- Faces: The Creative Process Behind Great Portraits (2000)
- Rock 1963-2003 (2003)
- Unknown Bown 1947-1967 (2007)
- Exposures (2009)
- Palace of Westminster, London
- National Portrait Gallery, London
- "The complete Jane Bown: a lifetime in photographs". The Guardian. 22 October 2009. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- "Jane Bown". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- Bown, Jane. "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, February 2006". royalcollection.org.uk. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- "RPS Honorary Fellowships". Royal Photographic Society. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- "Looking For Light". Hot Property Films. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
- "Inconspicuous presence behind the camera". fhefword.org.uk. April 23, 2014. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
- Tate Britain, 'How We Are: Photographing Britain' Press Release
- Tate Britain, 'How We Are: Photographing Britain', Guide to Room 5 - 'The Urge to Document 1970-1990' which included work on the 1984 Greenham Common evictions by Jane Bown
- Video about her life and work
- Biography at The Observer
- Jane Bown, National Portrait Gallery collection
- Jane Bown's Observer website
- Germaine Greer introduces 'Unknown Bown 1947-1967'
- BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour interview
- Audio interview with Jane Bown at Professional Photographer magazine