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".
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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 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.”
"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)
"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)
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".
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".