‘I try to show the good’: Photographer Dorothy Bohm finally gets her due

I don’t think any other photographer started out like me,” says Dorothy Bohm. Sitting at a circular table in the living room of her Hampstead home, which is next to the cemetery where Constable is buried, the 97-year-old is in a reflective mood. “I’ve had a very busy life,” she says. “I leave behind a kind of photographic history – 32 countries, 20 books and 26 exhibitions.”

Created over eight decades, Bohm’s oeuvre spans still life, portraiture, landscape, reportage, and social documentary, capturing what she calls “poetic, mysterious, and transient moments,” first in monochrome and then in colour. Her achievements as one of Britain’s most prolific living photographers belie the fact that she is not better known outside the photographic community. But that seems to be about to change.

Binoculars, Villa des Tulipes, 18th arrondissement, Paris, 1955 © Dorothy Bohm Archive

Approach to the castle, Lisbon, 1963
Approach to the Castle, Lisbon, 1963 © Dorothy Bohm Archive

This month sees the opening of an investigation into American street photographer Vivian Maier at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes – the first of its kind in this country. This spring, the Brighton Museum staged a comprehensive retrospective of 96-year-old American photographer Marilyn Stafford – its most comprehensive to date. A series of works by Bohm are currently being appraised for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery ahead of its reopening, and overall there is a tangible sense that the work of women artists, long hidden from view, is finally highlighted.

Others, frustrated at being relegated to the margins of the patriarchal medium, have formed collectives and staged performances (@womeninstreet) and pioneering research projects (@womeninphoto) dedicated to highlighting the global wealth of contemporary female talent. Such a radical reframing of the female gaze is long overdue, says Anne Morin, curator of the Maier exhibition: “It takes time for female image-makers to find their place in the history of photography, because it has was written by men. But the history of photography is not fixed, it is very much alive.

A self-portrait at 18

A self-portrait at 18 © Dorothy Bohm Archive

Vincennes Zoo, Paris, 1988

Vincennes Zoo, Paris, 1988 © Dorothy Bohm Archives

Bohm’s place in this story is remarkable, regardless of gender. Today, impeccably dressed in a fine-gauge lilac knit, not a wisp of her frosty-white hair out of place and her resolute eyes as she tells her story, it’s easy to see why Martin Parr nicknamed her “the ‘Unstoppable Dorothy Bohm’. She was born Dorothea Israelit into a family of assimilated Lithuanian Jews; his father was a prominent industrialist in the former East Prussian city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). She was 14 when she was put on a train by him to England in June 1939. Germany had just invaded Memel, the port city that had become their home seven years earlier. “I came to this country because of the Nazis,” she says vehemently. “I would not have survived.” Many of his classmates did not.

Petticoat Lane Market, London, 1960

Petticoat Lane Market, London, 1960s © Dorothy Bohm Archive

Memphis, Egypt, 1987
Memphis, Egypt, 1987 © Dorothy Bohm Archives

On that decisive day, as he stood on the station platform, his father, who was also an avid photographer, took off his Leica and hung it around his neck. “That might be useful,” he told her. “It’s funny,” says Bohm. “He gave it to me but I had no interest in photography at first. I didn’t even like being photographed, isn’t it strange?

Bohm was separated from her family for the next 20 years. Many of her relatives were sent to labor camps in Siberia (the Nazis didn’t get them, she says – the Soviets did); she, meanwhile, ended up at a boarding school in the bucolic village of Ditchling in East Sussex. It was the start of a long love affair with Sussex, where she acquired a farm in the 1960s, and with England, which became her adopted land. She took the camera at the suggestion of her father’s cousin, Sam. As the family’s money ran out, forcing her to give up her ambition to study medicine, he thought it might provide her with a financially viable career. .

Jerusalem, Israel, 1970

Jerusalem, Israel, 1970 © Dorothy Bohm Archive

Goodwood Races, Sussex, England, 1970s

Goodwood Races, Sussex, England, 1970s © Dorothy Bohm Archive

“He had noticed that I was very observant when I was a kid,” says Bohm. Sam arranged a visit to the Baker Street studio of prominent London portrait photographer Germaine Kanova which proved crucial. “She was lovely and the work was wonderful. From that moment, I knew that photography was for me.

In 1940, at the age of 16, Bohm left London to escape the Blitz and study photography at Manchester College of Technology, where she also met her late husband, Louis, a Polish Jew who had lost his mother and sister to the war (“we both started leaving with nothing at all”). Together they had two daughters, Monica and Yvonne. At 18, Bohm worked at a local photographic studio as a printer, then retoucher and finally operator, and three years later – with the help of a £300 loan – she opened Studio Alexander in Market Street in Manchester. His income supported Louis as he completed his doctorate. “I was the breadwinner at 21,” she says. “I’m still proud of that.”

“In my long life, I have seen the enormous progress made by women,” says Bohm, pictured at her home in London. “It’s wonderful what they have accomplished” © Lydia Goldblatt
A photograph of Bohm taken in 2012 in front of a black and white image she took in South Africa in 1974

A photograph of Bohm taken in 2012 in front of a black and white image she took in South Africa in 1974 © Lydia Goldblatt

Curator Dr. Flavia Frigeri selected Bohm’s images as part of a three-year project with the NPG, supported by Chanel. Its aim is to increase the representation of women as artists in the collection (the figure currently stands at a meager 12%). For Frigeri, Bohm was a prominent figure among a group of immigrant women photographers, including Laelia Goehr and Gerty Simon, who arrived in Britain in the 1930s and launched a new era in photography: “They created their own studios and essentially became businesswomen. It was an auspicious moment, says Frigeri: “It allowed women to be financially independent and really flourish at a time when painting and sculpture were still part of a male-dominated system.”

But it was beyond the confines of the portrait studio that Bohm really began to flourish. After the end of World War II, she was able to travel – first to Ascona, the Swiss town on Lake Maggiore, then to Paris and New York, living in both towns for a while with her husband in the middle. 1950s, and later in Mexico, South Africa and beyond. “The portrait is important, she says, but when I started photographing the world around me, it opened up a big window for me. »

The first images reflect a brutal Europe, ravaged by war, where the brilliance of humanity still shines through in everyday life. Children saunter mischievously through parks and street corners; mothers sit on steps cradling their babies; there are carnivals and circuses, and a re-emerging sense of social life. Bohm’s lens not only captures the daily hubbub, but also the underlying emotion. “Dorothy Bohm knows her camera doesn’t just see, it feels,” wrote Roland Penrose in the introduction to Bohm’s first book, A world observed, in 1970. Her post-war work can be seen as her effort to make sense of the environment into which she had been so dramatically transplanted. “Photography fulfills my deep need to keep things from disappearing,” she said.

The Marais, Paris, 1970

The Marais, Paris, 1970 © Dorothy Bohm Archives

Cordoba, Spain, 1959
Cordoba, Spain, 1959 © Dorothy Bohm Archive

In the 1960s, Bohm was there to record a rapidly changing London. His series of photos of street markets, filled with costumed punters, lone merchants, pearly kings and horse-drawn carts, continue to fascinate. “We live in a time when everyone has become a photographer, but the fact that Dorothy was already doing it 60 years ago makes these images incredibly relevant,” says Frigeri. “His London portrait captures the full range of human feelings – pleasures and pains.” Bohm balks at being described as a street photographer, but surely that’s a term that perfectly sums up much of her work? “I’m interested in people,” she insists. “For me, that’s what I think it boils down to, but not just people on the street. I photograph for the love of seeing – and I always live through my eyes.

Family photos on a shelf in Bohm's office

Family photos on a shelf in Bohm’s office © Lydia Goldblatt

Archived boxes of prints and negatives in Bohm's studio

Archived boxes of prints and negatives in Bohm’s studio © Lydia Goldblatt

Bohm thinks being a woman has worked to her advantage when she’s portrayed people in places from London to Luxor, Tel Aviv to Tokyo: “Because I’m a woman, I’ve never been a threatens. I have an innate sympathy and understanding of life. When her first one-woman show took place at the ICA in 1969, the positivity of her people at peace the photos were a great relief for The Enterprise of Destruction series of images by Don McCullin which was shown in the adjacent gallery. “I’ve seen a lot of them,” she says. “But I don’t show the ugliness of life, I try to show the good.”

Café Florian, Venice, 1984

Café Florian, Venice, 1984 © Dorothy Bohm Archives

Newsstand, Lisbon, 1996

Newsstand, Lisbon, 1996 © Dorothy Bohm Archive

The popularity of the ICA exhibition accelerated founder Sue Davies’ mission to establish The Photographer’s Gallery in 1971, where Bohm – who helped establish it – worked as associate director for more than 15 years. This inspiring chapter saw Bohm cultivate talents such as young Martin Parr and get to know everyone from Bill Brandt to Lee Miller, whose work she helped bring back to the public eye. It has never been a raison d’être to celebrate women photographers in particular at the gallery – but Bohm is keenly aware of the broader, seismic societal changes that have taken place.

“In my long life, I have seen the enormous progress made by women,” she says. “It’s wonderful what they’ve accomplished…I’m leaving behind a very different world.” But Bohm’s greatest wish, in a world where billions of images are recklessly created every day, is more poetic than political: to slow down and take the time to really see the world around us, she says. Look through your eyes instead of your phone.

To purchase original black and white gelatin silver prints by Dorothy Bohm and Type C color prints, email [email protected]

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