Two Exhibitions and a Conversation with Britain’s Renowned Photographer Dorothy Bohm
By Coleen MacPherson
Dorothy Bohm’s career in photography spans an incredible 75 years, having captured the ordinary lives of people in Europe, the Americas and the Far East. Having helped find the Photographer’s Gallery in London in 1971 and acting as Associate Director for fifteen years, her ability to observe the world around her has made her one of Britain’s greatest photographers. Born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad) to a Jewish Lithuanian family, at the age of 15 she escaped the Nazi occupation and fled to England where she has lived ever since. The story goes that when she boarded the train in June 1939, she leaned out of the window to say goodbye to her father; he took the Leica camera from around his neck and gave it to her hoping it would be something she might find useful.
I had the privilege of meeting the woman herself in her Hampstead home last week, where we spoke about her work, her life and the current exhibits of her photography in London. At 92 years of age Dorothy is soft-spoken with a slight accent, a sweet sensibility, and an incredible desire to give back to the city and country that took her in so many years ago.
After arriving in England and attending a grammar school in Dichling, she learned English quickly and was later persuaded by her father’s cousin to take up photography at Manchester University. She began her career in portraiture in Manchester after graduating, but it was not until she fell in love with Paris in 1947 that she took her camera outside for the first time. This was the beginning of a long career in capturing the world around her while travelling with her husband, Louis Bohm.
Dorothy Bohm’s “Sixties London” at the Jewish Museum and “Unseen London, Paris and New York 1930s-60s” at the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum help us reimagine the past and play against our visual expectations of the cities we think we know so well.
Forty of Dorothy’s black and white vintage photographs of London are on display at The Jewish Museum’s exhibit, “Sixties London.” All the photographs were developed by Dorothy herself and capture a record of what she saw. This work is a striking contrast to the clichéd images of the ‘swinging sixties,’ as it lures us to peer into pockets and corners of London, highlighting ordinary people in unlikely places. For Dorothy there is a desire to see beyond the surface of places and depict a living London where people pursued their daily occupations, walking, talking, eating, and wearing the fashion of the time. By taking these photographs we have a historical record of London, capturing the city in the moment of cultural and social change emerging from the Second World War. She tells me, “I’m not interested in what has been photographed a lot … I’m interested in people, not the rich.” There are images in parks, streets and alleyways; market stalls at Chapel Market, Knightsbridge and Paddington, workers in Notting Hill and children playing on tombstones in Kensington. There is a powerful image of a woman holding a doll in Islington’s Chapel Street Market, where a tragic feeling has been caught. Dorothy speaks of taking this particular photograph: “[The woman was] completely absorbed and didn’t notice me as she stood their transfixed.” There are images that are quintessentially London: two dogs on leads stop on a typical London street with Georgian homes, schoolboys at the Tower of London, a child reluctantly walking his two younger brothers through Primrose Hill.
Dorothy also points out, “a sense of humour is essential” as we speak about the witty image of a larger elderly woman walking to a vegetable stand and right above her is an advertisement for Persil of a child pulling on her pants – a double image is clearly visible.
For the last 20 years Dorothy has been working in London. “I owe it to this wonderful town and this country” she tells me and begins to describe what London was like during the Blitz. Buses continued running, maneuvering around the rubble with Dorothy standing as witness. She tells me she preferred to be outdoors even though she was warned to go into the air-raid shelter and described, “how wonderful [people] were, how good they were, there was no panic.” This desire to capture London for Dorothy is very strong as this lifelong project continues today.
The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum is also currently displaying her work, but this time it’s Paris. There are three photographers on display here presenting their artistic responses to three great world cities across three crucial decades. The photographers: Wolfgang Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm, and Neil Libbert all arrived at their respective destinations, finding cities that were strange and new to them and responding through photography without prejudice or expectation. As modern viewers, London, Paris and New York are cities that have a ready-made expectation visually, for these three photographers these cities were exciting, new and unfamiliar – the photographs displayed at Ben Uri are strikingly fresh and revelatory. Dorothy speaks of Paris as a place where she was inspired to go outdoors though it was not a glamorous city at that time, but one that saw the effects of war. An important photograph that she took was of a group of Parisians looking at a newsstand; it captures a moment in history so succinctly.
As a photographer and an outsider, one can see what others cannot, and it is this idea that the Ben Uri Gallery has captured beautifully through these three incredible photographers. Dorothy comments on this idea: “It’s a great advantage having moved around a lot. I still feel that there are things I can explore, which if you were absolutely a part of it from the very beginning, not having travelled you wouldn’t notice, you wouldn’t think it was anything special.” This is exactly the ability Dorothy has, observing and seeing what is around her with fresh eyes.
Dorothy Bohm’s photography captures the vulnerability of everyday people and each image is imbued with feeling. Having been forced to leave her home, her background and losing so much of her past and history, there is a deep desire to ‘stop things from disappearing’ and to ‘make transience less painful, to look for beauty in the most unlikely places’. She shares her home with me and we peruse through images of London, Portugal, Egypt and Israel; of her and her husband in Switzerland, polaroids which possess a delicate dance of light and of objects in her house that she uses for still life images. For Dorothy, photography is a way of communicating what lies beneath the surface of things, to be able to see what is beautiful in everyone and everything.
In a moment in our interview Dorothy begins to speak about her husband. Louis Bohm also escaped the Nazis and came to England from Poland. They met when she was 16 and he was 20 in Manchester and were married soon after. “Everything that was good in my life is due to Louis,” he was a man that helped her become the great photographer she is today. She tells me, “In the 40s men expected their wives to be at home and cook and so on, do you know what he told me? ‘It’s a waste of your time to be in the kitchen’ he said.” Even her daughter, Yvonne, would come home and wonder why her mother was not in the kitchen like other mothers but in the darkroom. It is clear that Dorothy is a woman of great ambition and passion and her husband saw and nurtured this immense desire within her. Years after they were married Louis told her that his mother and 16 year old sister were both killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. “I reminded him of his 16 year old sister,” she says. Although Louis only lived to witness one major exhibition at the London Photography Gallery, Dorothy holds a deep desire to continue capturing images to leave a legacy for Louis whose support allowed her to develop her art.
As we finish our visit and walk down the spiral staircase to the landing I ask Dorothy if photography has changed her view of humanity, if the images have helped in any way. “There is so much brutality and ugliness in the world, so to counteract it – Martin Parr shows the other side. Because of my life, because of what happened, I try to find things which are somehow, good.”
Coleen MacPherson is a Canadian writer and theatre director with a thirst to explore the world. She trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where she mentored with French playwright, Michel Azama. She has recently founded Open Heart Surgery Theatre: a group of international theatre-makers, creating work in London at Camden People’s Theatre, Mimetic Festival; in Paris at Plateau 31 and will soon be presenting ‘This is Why We Live’ in Toronto at The Theatre Centre. She is constantly inspired by photography and the power of the image.