Re-reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) this week, I was reminded of just how much the prevailing currents of the socio-political worlds into which we were born shape us. For Woolf, this notion arrived in the form of a ‘kindly gentleman’ at Trinity College Cambridge, who stopped Woolf entering the library, informing her that ‘ladies are only admitted […] if accompanied by a fellow of the college or furnished with a letter of introduction.’ For my own part, when I was at university in the early 1980s, I attended a lecture introducing Woolf as ‘a lesser James Joyce’. I have not forgotten those words, nor all the subtle (and, let’s face it, not so subtle) inferences attached to that statement. But what of lives less curtailed or shaped by gender than by unimaginable loss, by things disappearing, by friends and relations vanishing, the majority of whom were never to be seen again? What then?
Born in 1924 in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) to Jewish Lithuanian parents, from the age of eight until she was 15, Dorothy Bohm (née Israelit) lived in Lithuania with her family. In 1939, in order to escape the threat of Nazism, Bohm was sent to boarding school in England armed with little more than a suitcase and, as a last-minute gift from her father, his own Leica camera. For the next 20 years, Bohm heard nothing of her parents or younger sister; they were reunited almost two decades later, after they had been tracked down to a Siberian labour camp.
Having ostensibly lost the majority of her family, together with her homeland, is it any wonder that Bohm turned to an art form that in effect allowed her to freeze-frame time? As she herself writes on her website, photography ‘fulfills my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains some of the special magic, which I have looked for and found.’
Directed by Richard Shaw, Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm (2017) was recently shown as part of Jewish History Month (it runs throughout March). It’s a documentary about one of the UK’s foremost street photographers, a woman who has been making work for more than 70 years. It is a film that highlights the extraordinary gifts of someone who arrived in this country as an émigré at the age of 16 and who, as the photographer Markéta Luskačová says, ‘turned disadvantage to advantage’. As such, this short documentary is as much a film about life as it is about art, although this in no way detracts from Bohm’s photographs, which are on a par with the work of her more famous male contemporaries, such as Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész, some of whom were also close personal friends. Take, for example, Bohm’s photograph Weston-Super-Mare, England (1976), which, as Mark Haworth-Booth explains in the documentary, was his first purchase for the Victoria and Albert Museum where he worked as curator of photography. Beguilingly simple, the photograph shows a small line of people in silhouette as they troupe along a causeway across what at low tide must be sand, but which is now covered on both sides by sea. The impression is one of an incoming deluge, of people balanced on the edge of something menacing, of the precariousness of life itself.
Not that Bohm’s work dwells on the dark side. As a photographer, she is intent on focusing her attention on the humanity of her fellow human beings, on what people share in common, rather than what divides or sets them apart. In less expert hands this could tend towards the schmaltzy but, despite Bohm’s gaze being tender, there’s also a fierce acuity in her photographs. A recent exhibition, for example, ‘Little Happenings: Photographs of Children by Dorothy Bohm’, at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green, made clear that she neither mythologized childhood as a time of pure joy or unadulterated innocence, nor pathologized it as containing only instances of sadness, poverty or despair.
Bohm travelled widely throughout her career, taking photographs in France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Switzerland and the US. She was also a co-founder of The Photographer’s Gallery in London in 1971 alongside Sue Davies. Bohm became its associate director for the next 15 years, a position that saw her championing many up-and-coming photographers, among them Faye Godwin and Martin Parr. As for being a woman, in the documentary Bohm suggests that she found this to be an advantage in her work – a statement I do understand although there’s still a part of me (perhaps still smarting from that Woolf lecture), which feels that Bohm has somehow been cheated of greater prominence outside the small coterie of photography aficionados who acknowledge her worth. In the documentary, she quotes from one of her own, early interviews: ‘How glad I am to have seen daylight.’ It’s about time Dorothy Bohm’s photographs see more daylight, too.
Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm was shown as part of Jewish History Month (www.jhse.org), which runs throughout March and as part of the ‘Insiders/Outsiders Festival’ celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British Culture that is hosting nationwide events from March 2019 – March 2020. See www.insidersoutsidersfestival.org for more details.
Main image: Petticoat Lane Market, East End, London, 1960. Courtesy: the artist