Unseen. London, Paris, New York, 1930s-60s: Photographs by Wolf Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm & Neil Libbert / Reviewed by Anna McNay / 22.06.16
With a remit to represent the Jewish community, principally reflecting the works, lives and contribution of British and European artists of Jewish descent, interpreted within the wider context of 20th- and 21st-century art history, politics and society, the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum is the perfect venue for Katy Barron’s latest curatorial masterpiece, which brings together largely unseen photographs by three great Jewish names: Wolf Suschitzky (b1912), Dorothy Bohm (b1924) and Neil Libbert (b1938).
Presenting images of London, Paris and New York respectively, each photographer offers the insights of an outsider arriving in a new city for the first time. Suschitzky came to London as part of the second wave of Jewish refugees, escaping Nazi persecution, in 1934. His photographs, which largely date from 1937, when he began volunteering as a camera assistant at Strand Films, capture the wartime poverty of the city, filled with smog, gloom – and bad weather. A London bus crawling in the snow; milkmen, dustmen and shoe shiners on Charing Cross Road; queues outside Wyndham’s Theatre; and his phenomenal image – the only existing photographic record – of the entrance signs to War in Wax, an exhibition that took place on Oxford Street in 1945, filled with dioramas of the horrors of the concentration camps. As the son of a socialist bookseller and publisher in Vienna, the bookshops on Charing Cross Road – including the original Foyles – also feature prominently, capturing the community feel of the area to a tee.
Bohm, who likewise escaped the Nazi regime and arrived in England in 1939, first visited Paris in 1947. She returned there for a year in 1954 and created a body of work that captures the spirit of the post-war city through its artists, children, bridges and cobbled streets. Rue Tholozé, Montmartre (1954) might almost be a photographic counterpart to one of Joan Eardley’s contemporary paintings of children in the Glasgow slums. As a woman, Bohm has said she felt better able to melt into the background than her male photographer companions, and certainly her images depict a tender, almost nostalgic, recollection of the City of Love.
Libbert, although the least well-known of the three photographers, offers a view of New York that more than matches Suschitzky’s and Bohm’s insights. A self-taught photographer, born in Salford, he worked on the Manchester Guardian from the late 1950s until 1965, and it was a newspaper assignment in 1960 which first sent him across the pond. Having learnt his trade photographing children in the impoverished Salford streets, it is perhaps no surprise that he gravitated towards Harlem, where, despite the unemployment, poor housing, drugs and violence, he produced some joyful images of the children, playing in the streets, as yet full of innocence and hope. Likewise full of hope are his images of the more affluent New Yorkers in Lower Manhattan, with their long cars, chauffeurs, hair piled high and large shopping parcels – little did they know of the impending economic depression. Libbert was also aware of the seminal developments in documentary photography taking place around him in the city. Their influence can be seen in his work.
With around 20 photographs by each artist, this exhibition offers a wonderful journey through three key cities at three key moments in their respective histories. “Foreigners see things which natives don’t,” Suschitzky once said, and from the insights offered by the works on display here, it seems he most probably was right.
– reviewed by Anna McNay
Unseen. London, Paris, New York, 1930s-60s: Photographs by Wolf Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm & Neil Libbert, an exhibition curated by Katy Barron, continues at Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London, until 29 August 2016.
Ben Uri Gallery 108A Boundary Road London NW8 0RH