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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.
In 1985, she was awarded an MBE and in 1995, she was "upgraded" to the CBE.
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, Richard Dixon[disambiguation needed], 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.
- 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
- "Interactive: The complete Jane Bown: a lifetime in photographs". The Guardian. 22 October 2009. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
- 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 Greeham 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