LONDON — At a time when Hollywood’s influence reigned supreme, Boris Bennett’s photographs captured an essence of the American dream factory’s glamour, sophistication and style — regardless of his client’s background and income.
Between 1920-50, the Jewish East End wedding photographer brought a film star glitz and dazzle to the 150,000 pictures that emerged from his Whitechapel Road studio. Back in his heyday, it was said that if a Jewish couple didn’t have a “Boris” picture, they weren’t married.
Although his studio is long closed, a selection of his vintage work forms part of “For Richer For Poorer: Weddings Unveiled,” on show at the Jewish Museum London through May 31.
The exhibition showcases a rich and evocative collection of material relating to weddings within the immigrant Jewish community from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. Bennett’s Kodak camera is displayed alongside the museum’s archive of photographs, wedding dresses and documents.
In late 2014 a compilation of Boris’s wedding and portrait images was published called “Vintage Glamour in London’s East End” (Michael Greisman, Hoxton Mini Press). The book was subject to a discussion in late February, as part of an event at Jewish Book Week.
Many of the Jewish East End immigrants were poor, yet, for Bennett, according to his oldest son, Michael, not only was it important that his photographs were a memento of a special day, it was essential that he made all of his brides look glamorous.
“There were two things I remember as a little boy that he used to do and I didn’t really understand the significance at the time; only in later life did I realize what a wonderful thing it was,” Michael Bennett tells The Times of Israel. Every Sunday, Bennett ordered three elaborate bouquets of flowers from the local florist to ensure that if a bride could only afford a small bouquet, he could provide her with one of his arrangements to hold instead.
Michael Bennett sits in a small, comfortable sitting room, surrounded by books and dozens of photographs in his north London Hampstead home. Family snaps, not the formal studio based portraiture associated with his father, lines the walls. Suntanned from a recent trip to Israel, Bennett looks younger than his 82 years and bears a notable physical resemblance to Boris. Easy going, engaging and witty, he talks with an openness and affection about his father.
Bennett tells how father Boris also possessed a series of wedding trains because he believed a bridal dress with a train suggested luxury. Although in some pictures there is a mismatch between the train and the dress, and it is obvious they were pieces tacked on, the train still gave the all-important “extravagant” look.
“He was an originator,” son Michael says. Inspired by Hollywood, it was Boris who conceived the idea to merge photography with fashion and set design. Other photographers tried copying, but Boris created and built his own scenery. In place of a painted backdrop, he made steps, fireplaces and a pillar. Sometimes he incorporated a window, giving the impression of a dreamy, distant view. His stylish sets, combined with a unique use of lighting, contributed to an air of sophistication and romance seen in some of his pictures.
Boris never studied marketing, but made up for it with smarts and innovation. One novel idea was to frame his pictures, once he realized that people were putting their wedding photographs away in a drawer. He calculated — correctly — that if his pictures were framed then people would have no choice but to display them.
Sunday was Boris’s busiest day. He was able to take pictures of up to 30 couples and it was not unusual for clients to queue on the stairs of his studio. Crowds even formed outside to witness the activity. His wife Julia assisted Boris by taking the orders, organizing the studio, as well as helping prepare the brides.
Boris’s best-known and largest studio was at 14 Whitechapel Road, where his trademark florid signature was written outside in bright, neon lights. In keeping with the image that Boris was keen to project, a commissionaire would stand in the doorway to meet and greet his clients. The family lived above the studio and Michael Bennett describes his upbringing as happy and secure.
“My parents had great love for each other. My mother was really smart as she knew how to play the game that left my dad feeling he was master of all,’ he says.
Born in Poland, Boris was one of 11 children. With the advent of World War I, his formal education stopped at 14 and he was subsequently drafted into the Polish army. At 18 he left Poland, moving first to Paris before arriving in London in 1922. As a child he had wanted to become a photographer and he managed to open his first studio in the East End a year and half after arriving.
Boris returned to Poland for his mother’s funeral in 1938. Bennett says that he sensed the onset of WWII and tried to encourage his family to leave and join him in England. They chose to stay and perished in the Holocaust.
Perhaps as a result of this immeasurable loss, Boris was an ardent Zionist. Bennett says, “He was really pro-pro Israel. He went in 1949 and never missed a year after that. Israel was in his veins, in his blood. It was part of him.”
Boris was charming, tremendously charismatic and very driven. He was also always very smartly dressed, says Bennett.
“My father was a man of impeccable taste. Everybody described him as such a dapper gentleman, even when he didn’t have two halfpennies to rub together. His appearance always mattered to him.”
Although he retained his Polish accent all his life, his desire was “to be more British than the British,” says Bennett.
Boris often told the story of when a group of Japanese tourists asked to take his picture during one of his regular walks in Regent’s Park in central London. When pressed as to why, they replied that they wanted to take a picture of “a typical English gentleman.” He loved that, Bennett says, laughing – “it epitomized him.”
Boris had two friends who were peers and twice a week or so they would invite him for tea at the House of Lords. When he went through the gates of Parliament, the policemen would always say, “Good afternoon, my Lord.” To be perceived as a member of the British establishment was a source of delight to the Polish immigrant.
‘I think that in his mind he had said this is the end of an era’
Michael Bennett, a successful British retail fashion entrepreneur along with his brother Maurice, says that neither of them, nor their two sisters, displayed any artistic photographic sensibility.
Eventually Boris opened other studios in West London, but he stopped photography in 1957, as the trend shifted away from formal studio wedding portraits.
“I think that in his mind he had said this is the end of an era,” says Bennett.
He went on to open retail camera shops, Bennett Cameras, some of which were run by Michael and Maurice. The business was sold in the 1960s.
Michael says his father would have been happy with the resurgence of interest in his work. Imitating his father’s Polish accent, Bennett says Boris would have been “thrilled out of his mind.”