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Portrait of two artists

Samuel Beckett photo

Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown

As a naive and contrary university student of drama I recall standing up at a seminar on the author and playwright Samuel Beckett and denouncing his work as ‘bourgeois rubbish’ or some such. This blanket and arrogant condemnation was in part motivated by the surface nihilism of Beckett’s work that seemed so at odds with my newly found Marxist positivism, and, in equal measure by the soft-voiced reverence with which the writer was frequently celebrated – so at odds with the quite crude rumbustiousness of his actual work and the reality of his life – which included putting his life in grave danger supporting the resistance movement in France fighting the Nazi occupation. Odd to reflect that I probably ended up doing more background reading of Beckett’s plays and novels than almost any other playwright I was studying, including my beloved Berthold Brecht.

Today I learned that the actress Billie Whitelaw, who famously helped create the definitive production of Beckett’s later work, Not I, has died, by coincidence, on the same day as the woman who took one of the actresses most iconic photographic portraits, Jane Bown. Whitelaw’s frantic quivering lips, restless then still, isolated eight feet above the stage against a black background in Beckett’s shortest but most mesmeric work, pours forth at sometimes breakneck speed, memories, halting confessions, torment. There are many interpretations of the play – for me the very title of the play sums up our desperate attempt to escape blame, pain, reality and of course death – Not I/Why me? There is something almost Zen-like in the restless obsessive chatter that descends into meaninglessness: Not I – of course there is no ‘I’ beyond our desperate attempts to create meaning to shore up the ego. Whether my interpretation is way off the mark or no, Billie Whitelaw was the consumate Beckett actress, powerful, intelligent and creative. Indeed Beckett himself described her as “the perfect actress” and no doubt found her reportedly “devastating humour” in tune with the deeply comic heart of much of his work.

Jane Bown, Observer staff photographer for half a century, was a superb chronicler of her age. This modest, unobtrusive woman, working almost exclusively with natural light, was as successful in penetrating the interiors of her subjects as Whitelaw was of her stage and film characters. She has taught us so much about the economy of composition and the humanism of portrait photography. Looking at the spread of photos in Bown’s obituary in today’s Guardian (22.12.14) the simple genius of her work shines through: whether the studied arrogance of John Lennon, with the camera casually placed on the dressing room table emphasising the ‘pose’ he has struck; The candid capture of Cilla Black dangerously sipping coffee, legs akimbo squashing the gap between the sofa cushions, a study in Mary-Quant-like swinging 60s; a laughing poet John Betjeman, leaning out of the wind-swept snowy moorland.

Two towering figures sadly lost but representing something of the very best of the times they inhabited.

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