'A photograph fulfills my deep need to stop things from disappearing'

92-year-old photography doyenne found her focus in fleeing the Nazis

After escaping to Britain alone at age 14, Dorothy Bohm went on to become one of the most acclaimed artists of her generation

Detail from 'Petticoat Lane, Sunday market, with stall-holder,' by Dorothy Bohm, taken in 1960s London (courtesy)
Detail from 'Petticoat Lane, Sunday market, with stall-holder,' by Dorothy Bohm, taken in 1960s London (courtesy)

LONDON — In a remarkable career spanning over seven decades, renowned British photographer Dorothy Bohm’s motivation to capture a person, place, or moment has remained unchanged.

“A photograph fulfills my deep need to stop things from disappearing,” the 92 year old told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “There are times that I love something and I want to keep it,” she explains, revealing a slight accent — a holdover from childhood years lived in Prussia and Lithuania.

Part of this desire to retain what she sees and feels stems from experiencing considerable trauma and loss in her early life: living under Nazi rule in Memel, Lithuania (now known as Klaipeda) and a subsequent move to Britain on her own at age 14, in 1939.

Yet Bohm’s work is not nostalgic or morbid. Her photographs exude intimacy: they are immediate and often playful. Nissan Perez, former senior curator at the Israel Museum, wrote that Bohm’s images are characterized by emotional receptivity and reflect an affirmation of life.

“Having lived through difficult times, horrible times, I am unlike many other photographers who very often concentrate on dreadful happenings. I am the opposite. I will try to find order out of chaos. I look for the moment in which I find this order and beauty,” she says.

Haifa, Israel 1959 (Dorothy Bohm)
Haifa, Israel 1959 (Dorothy Bohm)

Bohm is referred to as one of the doyennes of British photography, known for her portraiture, street photography and early adoption of color. She was a contemporary and friend to some of the great photographers of the 20th century, such as Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész.

She has traveled and exhibited extensively and her work is held in private and public collections worldwide. She has also had 14 books published. The latest, “About Women,” which came out at the end of last year, was her first publication that focused on women as a theme.

This spring Bohm has two exhibitions opening in London. “Dorothy Bohm: Sixties London” is a selection of over 30 of her 1960s London street photographs at the Jewish Museum; and from late May, examples of her early works of Paris — taken in the 1940s and 50s — will feature in “Unseen,” a group show at the Ben Uri Gallery. Very few of these Parisian pictures have previously been exhibited in the UK.

The walls of Bohm’s north London Hampstead home are covered with pictures including many of her own framed photographs: still lifes, landscapes and people. Family snaps — of her husband, children and grandchildren — are dotted about. Numerous labeled brown boxes containing decades’ worth of images are stacked on shelves.

“It’s been wonderful. Apart from giving me a living, I’ve loved doing it,” Bohm says, offering me tea and cake.

Dorothy Bohm at Hughenden Manor, June 21, 2015 (Rick Stoller)
Dorothy Bohm at Hughenden Manor, June 21, 2015 (Rick Stoller)

Bohm is a striking figure. The combination of her white, wavy hair, bold jewelry and spirited demeanor belie her age. When talking about her career, her face becomes animated and from time to time her slate colored eyes convey a sense of mischievousness.

Bohm is keen to tell her life story, one that has been shaped by tragedy, good fortune and great love. She recounts it with chronological precision.

“Coming to this country was fantastic for me. I have been very, very lucky,” she says.

She was born Dorothea Israelit in 1924, in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) into a wealthy, cultured, well-respected family. Her father was a successful textile industrialist and she was brought up first by a nanny then a governess, but her sheltered upbringing was affected by the rise of Nazism.

She recalls watching the Hitler Youth march down the street past where they lived, when she was eight or nine.

‘I always say I had a guardian angel’

“For me to see what was happening was terrifying,” she says.

In 1932, the family left for Lithuania, believing it to be a place of refuge. Eventually, her father decided to send her to England to join her brother. It was June 1939.

“I always say I had a guardian angel,” she says, because her mother was reluctant for her to go, wanting her to stay for the summer. Her father insisted she went then so that she would have some command of English by the time school started in September.

Israel, Jerusalem 1970 (Dorothy Bohm)
Israel, Jerusalem 1970 (Dorothy Bohm)

She enthusiastically speaks about how her father was a tremendous influence on her, and shows me a photograph of him. She says he was a great believer in women, a Zionist, and an optimist.

“He believed that the Nazis would stop,” she adds.

When she said goodbye to her parents — not knowing that she would not see them again for 20 years — her father, an amateur photographer, handed her his Leica camera, telling her, “It might be useful to you.”

‘I had wanted to study medicine. Well, it wasn’t possible’

At the time, photography had never interested her — she even hated being photographed, she says. Later, she would have to sell the camera during a particularly lean time.

Her father’s business and family contacts in Britain ensured that she was looked after and Bohm attended a small, very traditional English boarding school in Ditchling, a village in East Sussex.

“I was the first foreigner – certainly the first Jew they had. I must say they were wonderful to me. Quite, quite wonderful,” she says. She worked hard and finished school at 16.

Bohm fell into becoming a photographer.

“I had wanted to study medicine. Well, it wasn’t possible.”

Chelesa, London in the 1960s (Dorothy Bohm)
Chelesa, London in the 1960s (Dorothy Bohm)

A cousin of her father’s told her that it was too expensive and that she needed to think of how she was going to earn a living. He mentioned that he had noticed she was very observant and suggested she studied photography. In London, she was introduced to a French-Czech studio photographer, Germaine Kanova, with the aim of being her assistant but a week later the Blitz began and the studio was closed.

The encounter was significant, however. When Bohm saw Kanova’s work she says it made her realize that photography was what she wanted to do.

“That sealed it for me. I said ‘that’s it.’”

Bohm then left London for Manchester where she enrolled in a photographic technology course, completing the four-year diploma in half that time. It was there that she discovered she was a talented portraitist, winning a prize for her work.

“I’ve always reacted quite strongly to things that are beautiful so when I became a photographer, first of all it was as a portraitist.”

‘As a portraitist, you talk to people. I’m not a bad psychologist’

Her sharp instincts and interest in people contributed to her success behind the camera.

“As a portraitist, you talk to people. I’m not a bad psychologist and I tried to get to know something about the person. I’d find out whom the picture was for.”

Manchester was also where she met “the greatest blessing of her life,” her late husband Louis Bohm — a Polish-Jewish émigré who, at the time, was studying for his PhD. Bohm was just 16 and he was 20.

“He was head of the students’ union and I had noticed him. He was very good looking and much more serious than most boys of his age,” she says, laughing. “I can say that almost all the happiness in my life is due to him.”

Billingsgate, 1960s London (Dorothy Bohm)
Billingsgate, 1960s London (Dorothy Bohm)

Bohm agreed to marry Louis on the condition that he continued his studies while she became the breadwinner. He consented.

“We got married without having anything whatsoever. He had a college scarf and a rusty bicycle,” she recalls, laughing again.

“He never told me until many years later that his mother and his 16-year-old sister had died in the Warsaw ghetto. I had a feeling that when he met me and knew my history he started to look after me. Extraordinary.”

In 1945, when Bohm was 21, they borrowed £300 and she opened her own portrait studio. But the opportunity for travel was the catalyst that took her from the studio into the realm of outdoor photography.

‘People quite enjoy being photographed. People accepted me’

By the late 1940s Louis was working for a petrochemical company and his business often took him overseas. She traveled with him and, for the next decade, she would photograph intensively wherever they went including Europe, America, Russia, Asia, Egypt and Israel.

“It’s easy to take photographs in a studio — including fashion — because you’re able to arrange it all, “ she explains. “Whereas in the big wide world you can’t and that’s what fascinated me.”

Bohm has written that it was during this period that she learned how to work with the only light available and to react quickly in order 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 says she has never had any problems with her subjects.

“People quite enjoy being photographed. People accepted me.” Being a woman photographer is and was an advantage, she adds. “I don’t look threatening!”

Quai du Louvre, Paris, 1952 (Dorothy Bohm)
Quai du Louvre, Paris, 1952 (Dorothy Bohm)

However, she was unaware that at times she attracted attention.

“I was quite a good looking young woman and I remember I didn’t realize what was happening. I would go out with my camera and quite often I had a car driving by and I hadn’t realized that somebody was trying to pick me up. I was an innocent. It was only later that I realized. I certainly didn’t look glamorous,“ Bohm laughs, “but I was young and pretty.”

In the late 1950s she learned what had befallen her parents and younger sister. Although they had survived the Nazis, her father did not escape the Soviets and spent 20 years at a labor camp in Siberia. Eventually, she and Louis managed to bring them to Britain.

‘My father taught me what it’s like to be strong’

It was, she says, “Incredible. Unbelievable. My father taught me what it’s like to be strong, I think.”

She tried talking to her father about his experiences but her mother asked her to stop because he would suffer from night terrors afterward and wake up screaming.

In 1971, she co-founded The Photographer’s Gallery in London — the first independent gallery in Britain that was devoted entirely to photography — and remained its Associate Director for 15 years.

According to Professor Michael Berkowitz, historian, academic and author of “Jews and Photography in Britain,” Bohm “showed that a Jewish woman, who was not evasive about her Jewishness, could be successful as the proprietor of a gallery for the general population and she became a central figure in British photography with a firm identity as both a woman and a Jew.”

A defining characteristic of Bohm’s career is her ability to experiment with style and form. She explains that in the early 1980s, when she was in her 60s, she started to feel that she had said everything that she wanted to say through her photographs.

Still Life, Hampstead, London 1990s (Dorothy Bohm)
Still Life, Hampstead, London 1990s (Dorothy Bohm)

“And I was thinking of even possibly giving up photography,” she admits.

But then, through The Photographer’s Gallery, she became friends with André Kertész who introduced her to color. It is the only medium she has worked in since.

When Louis died 20 years ago, her interest in her work lessened, she says, wistfully. She was not going to carry on. But “I thought he’d be ashamed of me,” and so she began working again.

Bohm still takes pictures and continues to innovate.

“I’m a restless person,” she says. She points to an elegant image of a still life — one of her favorites — that she has arranged and shot at home, “I work like a painter. Some of my best work is in fact still-lifes,” Bohm smiles. “It’s good, isn’t it?”

‘Dorothy Bohm: Sixties London’ runs until August 29, 2016
Jewish Museum London

London, Paris, New York 1930s-60s: Photographs by Wolfgang Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert
Ben Uri Gallery from May 20 – August 29, 2016

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