Tuesday 28 March 2023

Britain was once a welcoming country which adopted and has now lost a German-Jewish refugee who became its brilliant photographer, Dorothy Bohm

Dorothy, who has died aged 98, after a career as a photographer which spanned eight decades, was known for her portraiture, street photography and early adoption of colour. She also co-founded and developed the Photographers’ Gallery in London, the city whose people she loved and immortalized in her prints, which stand as tangible expressions of her deep sense of humanity. She said : "I believed that every human being has something beautiful. And quite often, when I’d taken the portrait, I saw what I didn’t see before" and “I feel that we need things that somehow make us believe in humanity and that’s why I photograph the way I photograph. I try to find a certain dignity".  

* * * * * * * *

She was born Dorothea, the daughter of Eta and Tobias Israelit in the summer of 1924 in the then city Königsberg, in Germany's East Prussia and now Kaliningrad in Russia. With her brother, she had an untroubled early childhood supervised by their nanny and governess in their German-Jewish family, sustained by the wealth generated by her father's textile mill. However, with the 1930s came danger with the rise of the antisemitic Nazi Party with their bully boy brownshirts on the streets. Then things changed dramatically for the worse with Hitler's coming to power in 1933, as the German Chancellor. Dorothy said : "My grandfather lived very near a main road, and there was a procession of Hitler Youth, but at nine, I didn’t know what it was and that stayed in my mind, seeing them march with the swastika". She herself suffered the double trauma of being called a "Judische Kröte" – a "Jewish toad" – and being kicked in the street.

Her father now made the decision to move the family out of Germany and to safety to the north, in the state of Lithuania and the Baltic port of Memel, where he had another textile mill. Then, given the fact that Memel also had a German population, when things became uncomfortable there, he moved the family inland, to the city of Šiauliai.(link) Finally, with the approach of the Second World War in 1939 and fearing for her safety, her father arranged for Dorothy to travel to Britain where her brother Igor was already studying in Brighton.

Dorothy said : “I was a dumpy little girl. I hated being photographed” but recalled : "My father was one of those who believed in anything new and so in the 1930s he was using a Leica. And when I was shipped off to England, because Hitler had come and life had become impossible, saying "Goodbye" to me, he took off his Leica and gave it to me. It was strange. He said : “It might be useful to you" ". She took the camera from him, leaning out of the window of her departing train, little knowing that she would not see him again for twenty-one years.

In 2016 Dorothy told the Jewish Chronicle : “I arrived on the eve of my 15th birthday. A traumatic experience because I had watched what Nazis were doing and the whole family was under great threat. After all these years it is still traumatic for me to remember those days”. She said : "Coming to London in the beginning was very difficult. I came on my own. I always think that I must have had a guardian angel somewhere because I was very lucky, despite all the misery". The trauma was heightened when, with the outbreak of the Second World War later that year, she lost contact with her parents and it was to be twenty years before she knew they were alive and twenty-four, before she reunited with them in Britain.

During those years Dorothy was to use the Leica and her photos as a coping mechanism and said : "My fascination really, was to capture what the world was like. And I've always said I wanted to keep what would disappear. Because in my lifetime, I have seen all the things that have meant something to me disappear". She later reflected : "I think I've done a fair amount with helping other people with their photography because I know what it can mean to us - quite central my being as far as being interested in the world and people".

When she arrived in Britain, business friends of her father managed to get her into a small exclusive boarding school run by two elderly ladies for the children of diplomats. North End House School, in the village of Ditchling in Sussex was not far from her brother in Brighton. Initially, she had to take lessons with the six-year-olds because she didn't know any English. She recalled : "I don't think the school ever had a foreigner or Jewish person but they were wonderful to me. My last experience of school in a German lycée, as a Jew, was absolutely terrible".

After a year and now competent in English, she left school at the age of sixteen and moved to London and now took up the camera professionally, at the suggestion of her father’s cousin Sam, who had fled to Britain from Germany. Dorothy said he did this because : “He’d noticed I was very observant as a child”As the family money had run out, she was forced to forgo her ambition of studying medicine and becoming a doctor because Sam thought photography might provide a financially viable career. He introduced Dorothy to French-Czech studio photographer, Germaine Kanova and she said : “I was most impressed by her, a marvelous, interesting woman and her work was fascinating. She’d photographed many many famous people, (including the author, Colette) also done landscapes and still lives”. "That sealed my fate. What I saw on her walls delighted me". Unfortunately, her apprenticeship at Germaine's Studio in Baker Street was cut short after one week when it was forced to close with the start of the German aerial bombardment in the 1940 London Blitz.

She relocated to Manchester where her brother Igor was now studying and signed up for a four year diploma course in photographic technology at Manchester College of Technology. It was in Manchester that she now formed a close relationship with Marie Nordlinger, an artist famous for her friendship with Marcel Proust and who now had the biggest influence on Dorothy's work. She said : "My opportunity to meet a woman like this was wonderful and she couldn't have been a better 'grandmother' to me. I was 16 and she was in her 60s. I think it made the war years in Manchester much easier for me. She had been an artist and had lived in Paris. Her house was amazing; books and paintings. She was the first person to encourage me with my photography". 

During the day, to generate some income, Dorothy said : "I had a job at a portrait studio. I remember I went to see if I could possibly join the Women's Army. They asked me "What was I doing?" And I said "I'm a portrait photographer". He then said "Oh; well it's an essential job to keep up the morale of the people, if you don’t want to join, carry on taking photographs. Absolutely!" 

It was here, in the studio at the age of sixteen, that she displayed the nascent probing qualities which would serve her so well as a professional photographer : "I used to try and find out who is the picture for? Was it for the family? Was it for a boyfriend, girlfriend, and so on? And at that time all we had, because film was very short, I had four shots only for each sitter, and having found out whether it was for a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a grandmother, I chose two with that in mind. The other two was me looking at the person and I'm happy to say that they mainly chose the ones that I saw them as". 

Her talent as a communicator had also been spotted at this time : "Photography wasn’t the only work I did during the War. I also took evening classes for young photographers coming back from the Army wanting to relearn, and I was also chosen by the Minister of Information to join their group of lecturers/speakers". In addition, as a Lithuanian, Dorothy was considered a 'Friendly Alien' and during the War she gave Ministry of Information talks, drawing on her personal experiences, about the crimes of Nazi Germany. 

It was at the College that Dorothy was befriended by Louis Bohm, a young Polish Jew, also in exile and studying chemistry. She said : "I was brought up in a family that believes in education, I said I would only get married if he continued studying. And he said : "All right Let's find a place where you can have your own studio"" At the time she was working at the studio of Samuel Cooper, learning printing and retouching images and Dorothy recalled : “We got married without having anything whatsoever. He had a college scarf and a rusty bicycle”. 

She said : "Neither of us had any money, so we borrowed £300 from a friend’s family and we started a small studio in 1946, in Market Street, Manchester. And I must say it was very successful". In her 'Studio Alexander', where she took formal portraits, she honed the skills she had learned in the War : engaging with the sitters and searching out the beauty in their faces and illustrated in her portrait of fellow refugee, Eva and her photograph of a 'Manchester Girl'.

She said : “Portraits were easy for me because I always thought there was something beautiful in every person”. She was, however, restless and said : "The studio was too easy - you could control everything. I like the challenges of going out, with a camera, and trying to portray them". 

With the War over, it was a trip with Louis to the bohemian community at Ascona on Lake Maggiore, Switzerland, in 1947, which changed her direction and launched her into 'en plein air' photography. 
She said : "We arrived in Paris, on the way through to Switzerland, and my first picture ever taken in available light was in Paris. And it was from here that photographing in available light fascinated me and challenged me" reacting quickly to capture her “decisive moment”. Using a Rolleiflex she took to the city streets and shot black and white pictures of everyday life, developing her own style of human interest photography. She said : "People accepted me" and found that being a woman photographer was an advantage because she didn't : "look threatening”.

At Lake Maggiore she said  'The thin veils of early morning mist rising from the lake made me wish to capture their mood with my camera and I couldn't resist the temptation to photograph again. Once I had discovered to joys of photography in daylight, I certainly was not short of subjects".

In the early 1950s Dorothy and Louis settled down in London, where they brought up their two daughters. However, Louis’s work, working for the  petrochemical company, Shell, brought her the opportunity of extensive travel and allowed her to shoot in locations that were exotic for the time, such as Mexico and South Africa. In addition, her work of this period provided insights into the changing face of post-war Europe, as well as the USA, the Soviet Union and Israel. She said : "Someone who is born in a society, doesn’t notice things – someone from outside notices more. Travels make you see things that people who don’t travel will never see or understand". "I was fortunate that my husband's income enabled me to photograph for the joy of photographing". 

It was in the 1950s that Dorothy heard, via the Red Cross, that her parents were still alive. After the Soviet Union fought and took Lithuania from Germany in 1940, they, as German citizens had been deported to Russia. Her father was then sent to a labour camp for five years before being exiled with her mother and younger sister to Biysk, in the Altai region of Russia. When Dorothy flew to Russia and saw them again it was 1960 and they were living in poverty in Soviet-ruled Riga, Latvia. 

It then took Dorothy and Louis three years to get permission to bring them to Britain, a feat made possible by then leader-of-the-opposition, Harold Wilson. Wilson was going to meet Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to talk about antisemitism and on hearing this they hand delivered a letter to his home, marked : 'Please take this on your flight to Russia'. (link) Incredibly, when Wilson returned from his trip it was announced on the news that an elderly Jewish couple had been given permission to join their daughter in England.

Dorothy recalled : “My father was amazing. He was in one of the worst camps in Siberia; it was 40 degrees below zero for eight months. There were times in the early days when I didn’t know if they were alive, and they didn’t know if the other was alive. And he wasn’t bitter, it was amazing. When I talked to him I wanted to ask questions, then my mother said when he has talked to you he wakes up in the middle of the night and screams so please don’t ask any more questions. I didn’t.”

Dorothy had her first solo show at the age of forty-five in 1969 at the  Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where her exhibition, 'People at Peace', was juxtaposed with 'The Destruction Business', a selection of Don McCullin’s war photography. She said : "That was the very first time, aside from Beaton at the National Portrait Gallery, that photography was given a showing. I was lucky, I was friends with important people” and “At the time, the interest in the show was so enormous that there were calls for a photography-specific gallery”. Her first photobook, 'A World Observed', was published the following year and in 1971 she co-founded with Sue Davies, the Photographers' Gallery in London, as the first public gallery in Britain devoted solely to photography.

Dorothy said that after her exhibition : "Sir Paul Riley, who liked at my photography, looked at the picture and said to me : "And why not London ?" And from that point I did, seriously, photograph London. Before that, it had been only cities in Europe. I'd travelled everywhere".(link)

Lisbon, Rome and Paris

"I remember most of the moments at which I took an important picture for me. Here, there was a woman who might have been a very lovely sort of woman herself and quite tragic because, now, she's old and sad and she's selling dolls. (Petticoat Lane, London) I touched a moment in me, of pity in her".

"He is a London character who obviously enjoyed being photographed by me and I also like the fact that the man at the back was again, very much and East Ender. Petticoat Lane was full of interesting things at the time".

"What pleases me is when I'm with other people and they don't seem to notice things that mean something to me. I want to capture a reality as seen through my way because we all see things in a different way. Don't forget I've been trained to look for the moment and take a picture because it's worth taking and I think that remained with me all my life". 

"If you're a photographer, everything you see is of interest, Photography can open the world to other people. It makes you see which you cannot see. It's opening, in my peculiar way, the world for other people to look at and if they're interested to see it. I'm delighted".(link)

"I started 'Londoners' in 1940 when the Blitz started. My love for
 Londoners is partly due to the fact that people behaved in the most extraordinary way - good to each other, and don't forget I've lived in Paris and New York".(link)

"I would never take a picture if somebody objected. I often took a picture without them noticing it, but I would never take a picture that might hurt. There's enough hurt in the world and this again shows that he didn't mind at all. There's one shot, nothing more" (link)

"It would be easy to find ugly things and I have sometimes seen the figures I would dislike. But no. I try not to beautify things but to see things as I saw them. You see this picture here, no where else in the world would children play on a gravestone and this one here - only English boys - they couldn't be French. They couldn't be Italian". (link)

"I think the sentence Roland Penrose 
used when I had my first 
book published he said : 
'Her camera doesn't always see. It feels'. I think that sums it up for me"
. (The artist and historian, Penrose, wrote the preface to her book). She herself said "You have to have a certain amount of sympathy or empathy for the people that you photograph, otherwise it's cold. It's been part of my life, I can't even disassociate myself from it and I must admit I never take photographs for anybody else but for myself. If other people like it and I've had quite a lot of success, I'm happy about it". 

Her photographic output decreased during the 1970s as she helped to build the reputation of the Photographers’ Gallery as an Associate Director for 15 years and worked on exhibitions of emerging talents like Sarah 
Moon and Colin Jones.(link) Of the veterans she said she found : "Some nice, some conceited". Henri Cartier-Bresson was : "A complicated man. Very strong views. He didn’t have much reverence for other people. I think humility is something that one should have. Anyhow, a very good photographer". Bill Brandt she found to be : "A shy, wonderful human being"

Of Martin Parr, whose pictures she admitted were in stark contrast to hers she said : "I try to find things that are good and to me, when I photograph the English, I photograph the way I see them, whereas he has that sense of humour. And he is as right as I am right". She got on less well with Cecil Beaton, who she said : "Did not know how to cope with the photography. Somebody else had to help him with the shutter”.

She said : "I went to New York and I went to see André Kertész and he had been given a by Polaroid some material so they say he's using it. When I saw what he was doing I came back and asked my husband : "Could I have a Christmas present - a polaroid ?" I started to take photos for two years, every morning on the window sill and I'm absolutely certain that I learned how to look at colour through working with a polaroid. It's not difficult to succeed in colour. It's more difficult to succeed in colour than in black and white. For some reason we take it for granted that black and white is more artistic".

From the mid-1980s, she worked primarily in colour, embracing collage-like compositions of torn posters and pavement furniture and surreal reflections in shop windows and puddles. In these, she exhibited a particular fondness for a strong red and her Hungarian friend and inspiration, André, became an admirer of her vibrant polaroids.

In 1984, on a visit to the Far East, she used Kodak colour film for the first time and thereafter abandoned black and white entirely. Children remained one of her consistent themes with the two street urchins in Montmatre in black and white in the 1950s giving way to the two schoolgirls on a visit to the Zoo de Vincennes in colour in the 1980s.

The death of Louis in 1994 caused Dorothy to consider giving up the camera. “And then I thought he’d be ashamed of me,” she noted, “and I started to photograph again.”  In all she did, she tried to stay true to the philosophy which had guided her through life :"Be alive and cherish the life you have, and try at the end of each day to say that I have done nothing that I am ashamed of. I think it’s very very important that one should lead the sort of life that they can be proud of, nothing to do with money".

In the 21st century she admitted : "I haven't gone digital, because at this stage of my life there’s no point! And I absolutely loved the dark room work. A wonderful thing seeing your image appear. Although I never wore gloves, so I ruined my hands with the chemicals".

 In 2012 the Photographers' Gallery reopened after a massive redevelopment and Dorothy said : “It’s done so extremely well. They raised £9 million” and reflected : "Don't forget when I was studying photography it was looked down upon and to me the fact that it is now acknowledged as being an important part of the Arts is wonderful and I've lived long enough to see it". 

In 2018 the film 'Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm' directed by Richard Shaw was released described as : 'An intimate portrait of renowned photographer Dorothy Bohm, who escaped Nazi Europe to spend a lifetime capturing humanity'. (link)

Dorothy said :

“I am temperamentally suited to being a photographer. You can only make a picture of something that exists, right? And for me that was quite important. I wanted to capture time. My background completely disappeared”.

"My life has been full of lots of things, full of tragedy and sorrow and full of great happiness, and it’s been a rich life".