Holocaust survivor Dorothy Bohm captures Hampstead bustle through the lens
PUBLISHED: 13:37 20 March 2014 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 March 2014
After 73 years as a photographer, Dorothy Bohm still captures the beauty and fascination in daily life with her trusty Olympus.
Due to turn 90 in June, she has travelled the world in her long life, snapping street shots in Paris, New York, Mexico and Japan.
But her enduring fascination lies with her Hampstead home, and, to mark her milestone birthday, Burgh House is staging an exhibition of 50 colour images of the area.
“I have enjoyed photographing Hampstead and, though I have photographed most of the buildings, I decided to make this exhibition more lively, and show people.
“This is such a wonderful country. You take it for granted but for people like me, who lost so much and saw in different times how people behaved to each other, I feel very lucky living here, having good friends. Life has been full and, after 50 years, I belong here.”
Burgh House curator Rebecca Lodge said: “Dorothy has a huge catalogue of work of Hampstead, much hasn’t been seen and it seemed timely to celebrate her work.
“The images are eclectic, very local and very personal to her. It is her view of Hampstead, the themes that have captured her imagination or caught her eye. Pictures of people sitting, going about their daily lives or local events. Some have a voyeuristic quality, taken from a window or capturing people walking down the street – you get a sense of the beautiful architecture, of people from all walks of life, of a leafy suburb and a joyful place.”
Bohm was born in Konigsberg to a German-speaking family of Lithuanian Jews and aged 15 was sent to boarding school in England by her industrialist father.
“My father was wanted by the Nazis and, because he had done a lot of business with Manchester, he got me a visa in June 1939. He had a Leica and loved photographing things, though I was a podgy little thing and hated being photographed.
“I wasn’t interested in it at all but fate is a very strange thing and, as I leant out of the railway carriage to say goodbye, he took off his Leica and said ‘this might be useful to you’.”
At school Bohm found friendship and kindness, but, cut off from her family whom she would not see for 20 years, she needed to earn a living and got a bursary to study photography at Manchester Municipal College of Technology.
It was there aged 16 that she met Louis Bohm, a Polish-born PHD student whose family perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.
They married in 1945, and shortly after Bohm opened her own portrait studio aged just 21. They enjoyed an extremely happy marriage with two daughters. Louis supported her craft.
“Meeting him was the greatest fortune of my life. He was a wonderful, intelligent man, a great optimist and he encouraged my photography, which was rare for a man in the 40s.
“Despite all the terrible things, in our early days I am glad in some ways because I know what it’s like when you have very little money.”
Louis’ job in petrochemicals took them overseas and Bohm travelled widely including Paris, New York and Mexico before settling in Hampstead in 1956.
It was on a trip to Paris in 1947 that she first shifted to street photography.
“My long love affair with Paris started then. One of my favourite photographs is of people looking at newspapers on the stand because they couldn’t afford to buy the paper.
“As soon as I could afford to, I moved away from portraits. Street photography is much more difficult and much more exciting. To be able to read the light and capture a moment that will pass. Because all my past had gone, having a record of things that I saw and loved was very important to me.”
Despite travelling alone across America and venturing into parts of many cities, she says “it never occured to me to be frightened. I was just interested in taking good photographs”.
In 1969, when she co-founded The Photographer’s Gallery, she did much to secure photography’s reputation as an art form rather than a commercial medium. When Louis died in 1994, Dorothy wasn’t sure she could go on, but photography helped her endure.
“At first I couldn’t bear it, then I thought he would be ashamed of me, and my father would be ashamed. I continued photographing and it helped me a lot.”
An early experimenter with colour, she abandoned black and white by the 80s and still works with film.
“It’s so easy with digital to click, click, click, but I don’t release the shutter unless I am sure it’s what I want and never more than three of the same subject. I work very quickly and dress unobtrusively.
“My Olympus does exactly what I want it to do. I am in charge, not the camera, but, if I have had a good outing, I sometimes find myself stroking it.”
When she sees the moment she knows it.
“There are two pictures I took after a walk down Church Row. I saw a tree against the clouds or the way the light transforms certain things and it’s an instant response. I look for things that are beautiful – there is so much ugliness about and I look for something that moves me. I can’t photograph without any feelings.”
The free exhibition runs from Friday until June 22. Open Wednesday to Friday, and Sunday, noon-5pm.
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