DOROTHY BOHM: 92-year old photographer found her focus in fleeing Nazis

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After escaping to Britain alone at age 14, she went on to become one of the most acclaimed artists of her time.

She is known for her portraiture, street photography and early adoption of colour.  She was a contemporary and a friend to some of the great photographers of the 20th century such as Brassai, Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson.

‘Having lived through difficult times, horrible times, I am unlike many other photographers who often concentrate on dreadful happenings.  I am the opposite.  I will try to find order out of chaos.’

Bohm’s work exudes intimacy and is often playful.  Her images are characterized by emotional receptivity and reflect an affirmation of life.

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

In 1932, her family left for Lithuania, believing it to be a place of refuge.  Eventually her father decided to send her to England.  She speaks about how her father was a tremendous influence on her.  He was a great believer in women, a Zionist and an optimist. When she said good-by to her parents, not knowing that she wouldn’t see themfor 20 years, her father, an amateur photographer, handed her his Leica camera, telling her, ‘It might be useful to you.’

At the time, photography had never interested her.  She wanted to study medicine.  

A cousin of her father told her studying medicine was too expensive and she had to think of how she was going to earn a living.  He mentioned that he had noticed she was very observant and suggested she study 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 meeting was significant, however, because when Bohm saw Kanova’s work it made her realize that photography was what she wanted to do.

She enrolled in a photographic technicology course in Manchester completing the 4-year diploma in half the time. She discovered she was a talented portraitist and won a prize for her work.

Manchester was also where she met ‘the greatest blessing in her life’, her late husband Louis Bohm, a Polish-Jewish émigré who, at the time, was studying for his PhD.  She was 16 and Louis was 20. She agreed to marry him if he continued with 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 says, laughing.   ‘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.’

By the late 40’s Louis was working for a petrochemical company and his business took him overseas.  Dorthy travelled with him and for the next decade, she would photograph intensively wherever they went including Europe, America, Russia, Asia, Egypt and Israel.

Using her Rolleiflex, she took to the city streets and shot black and white pictures of everyday life. 

 ‘People enjoyed being photographed.  People accepted me.  Being a woman photographer was an advantage,’ she said.  ‘I don’t look threatening.’

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

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 the central figure in British photography with a firm identity as both a woman and as a Jew.

 ‘Photography for me has been a lifetime.  When you’ve been doing it for more than 70 years, it becomes completely natural, like eating and drinking.’

Bohm says that everything has to work together.  ‘You don’t just see, you also have to feel.  A photograph depends on just a fraction of a second: you have to feel the moment, and capture it.’

Bohm says she was influenced to do what she does by the early films of Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman.  

The highest point in her life was being asked to exhibit her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1969.   ‘I was one of 4 photographers and the only woman.’

92-year old Dorthy Bohm still takes pictures and continues to innovate.