I don’t think there is any other photographer who started out like me,” says Dorothy Bohm. Sitting at a round 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’m leaving behind a kind of photographic history – 32 countries, 20 books and 26 shows.”
Spanning more than eight decades, Bohm’s oeuvre spans still lifes, portraits, landscapes, reportage and social documentaries, capturing what she calls ‘poetic, mysterious, transitional moments’, first in black and white and then in colour. Her achievements as one of Britain’s most prolific living photographers belies the fact that she is not better known outside the photographic community. But this seems to be changing.
This month marks the opening of a survey by American street photographer Vivian Maier at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes – the first of its kind in the country. This spring, the Brighton Museum hosted a full retrospective of 96-year-old US-born photographer Marilyn Stafford — her most comprehensive to date. A range of works by Bohm are currently being assessed for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery before reopening, and all in all, there is a palpable sense that the work of women artists, long hidden from plain sight, is finally coming to the fore. .
Others, frustrated at being relegated to the sidelines of the patriarchal medium, have formed collectives and staged shows (@womeninstreet), and pioneered research projects (@womeninphoto) aimed at highlighting the global wealth of contemporary feminine talent. Such a radical reformulation of the female gaze took a long time, says Anne Morin, curator of the Maier show: “It takes time for female image makers to find their place in the history of photography, because it was written by men. But the history of photography isn’t something fixed — it’s very much alive.”
Bohm’s place in that history is remarkable, regardless of her gender. Today, impeccably dressed in a delicate lilac knit, not a strand of her icy white hair out of place, and her eyes determined as she tells her story, it’s easy to see why Martin Parr called her “the unstoppable Dorothy Bohm.” She was born Dorothea Israelit into a family of assimilated Lithuanian Jews; her 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 to England by him 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 wouldn’t have survived.” Many of her classmates did not.
On that decisive day, as he stood on the platform, her father, who was also an avid photographer, took off his Leica and hung it around her neck. “This may come in handy,” he told her. “It’s funny,” Bohm says. “He gave it to me, but I had no interest in photography at all. I didn’t even like being photographed – isn’t that 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 was meanwhile at a boarding school in the rural village of Ditchling in East Sussex. It was the beginning of a long-lasting love affair, both with Sussex, where she acquired a farm in the 1960s, and England, which became her adopted home. On the advice of her father’s cousin Sam, she picked up the camera. As the family money ran out, forcing her to abandon her ambition to study medicine, he thought this would make for a financially viable career.
“He noticed that I was very observant as a child,” says Bohm. Sam organized a visit to the Baker Street studio of prominent London portrait photographer Germaine Kanova which proved crucial. “She was nice and the work was great. From that moment on I knew photography was for me.”
In 1940, aged 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 war (“ we both started off with absolutely nothing”). Together they had two daughters, Monica and Yvonne. At 18, Bohm had a job in a local photo studio as a printer, then as a retoucher and finally as a switchboard operator, and three years later – with the help of a loan of £300 – she opened Studio Alexander in Manchester’s Market Street. Her income supported Louis when he completed his PhD. “I was the breadwinner at 21,” she says. “I am still proud of that on.”
The curator Dr. Flavia Frigeri has selected Bohm’s photos as part of a three-year project with the NPG, supported by Chanel. The aim is to increase the representation of women as artists in the collection (now this figure stands at a meager 12 percent). For Frigeri, Bohm is a prominent figure among a series of female emigrant photographers, including Laelia Goehr and Gerty Simon, who arrived in Britain in the 1930s and started a new era in photography: “They founded their own studios and became essentially businesswomen.” It was an auspicious moment, says Frigeri: “It allowed women to be financially independent and really come into their own at a time when painting and sculpture were still very much part of a male-dominated system.”
But it was more than the boundaries 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 city on Lake Maggiore, then to Paris and New York, where she lived in both cities for a while with her husband in the mid-1950s, and later to Mexico , South Africa and beyond. “Portrait is important,” she says, “but when I started photographing the world around me, a big window opened.”
Early images show a rugged Europe ravaged by war, where the glint of humanity still shines through the everyday. Children hang out mischievous in parks and on street corners; mothers sit on sidewalks and rock their babies; there are carnivals and circuses, and a sense of re-emergence of social life. Bohm’s lens captures not only the daily hustle and bustle, but also the emotion underneath. “Dorothy Bohm knows that her camera not only sees, but also feels,” wrote Roland Penrose in the introduction to Bohm’s first book, A perceived world, in 1970. Her post-war work can be seen as her attempt to understand the environment into which she was so dramatically transplanted. “The photo fulfills my deep need to keep things from disappearing,” she says.
In the 1960s, Bohm was there to capture a rapidly changing London. Her series of street market photos, filled with fit gamblers, lone stallholders, pearly white kings and horse carts, continues to captivate. “We live in a first-person era where everyone has become a photographer, but the fact that Dorothy did this 60 years ago makes these images incredibly relevant,” says Frigeri. “Her portrait of London captures the whole gamut of human feelings – the joys and the pains.” Bohm dares not be described as a street photographer, but isn’t it a term that neatly encompasses a large part of her work? “I’m interested in people,” she insists. “I think that’s what it comes down to for me, but not just people on the street. I shoot for the love of seeing – and I still live through my eyes.”
Bohm believes being a woman worked to her advantage when portraying people in places from London to Luxor, Tel-Aviv to Tokyo: “Being a woman, I was never a threat. I have an innate sympathy and understanding for life.” When her first one-woman show took place at the ICA in 1969, the positivity of her People in peace pictures was a great relief to The destruction business series of images by Don McCullin shown in the adjacent gallery. “I’ve seen a lot,” she says. “But I don’t show the ugliness of life, I try to show the good.”
The popularity of the ICA show boosted founder Sue Davies’ mission to found The Photographer’s Gallery in 1971, where Bohm—who helped found it—was an associate director for over 15 years. In this inspiring chapter, Bohm saw talents like the young Martin Parr nurture and get to know everyone from Bill Brandt to Lee Miller, whose work she helped bring back into the public eye. It was never a raison d’être to celebrate female photographers in the gallery in particular – but Bohm is well aware of the broader, seismic societal shifts that have taken place.
“In this long life of mine, I’ve seen the tremendous progress women have made,” she says. “It’s amazing what they’ve accomplished…I’m leaving behind a world that’s very different.” But Bohm’s greatest wish, in a world where billions of images are carelessly created every day, is more poetic than political: slow down and take time to really see the world around you, she says. Look through your eyes, not your phone.
To purchase original Dorothy Bohm black and white silver gelatin prints and C-type color prints, email: [email protected]