Francine Wolfisz previews a unique exhibition showcasing three of the most celebrated Jewish photographers of the 20th century – Wolfgang Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert
As he walked along Oxford Street in 1945, photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky found himself disturbed at the sight of an unusual exhibition.
“War in Wax,” read the sign in oversized lettering. “Including the horrors of the German concentration camps, all in life-like and life-size figures.” The graphic array of exhibits, which included a peasant hanging from a tree, macabre scenes from Buchenwald and a wagon packed to capacity with “doomed people”, were curiously juxtaposed with a children’s section displaying figures of Cinderella and Snow White.
Suschitzky’s resulting and rarely seen photograph [right] is a striking portrait of wartime London and forms one of the 60 works now taking centre stage at the Ben Uri Gallery.
London, Paris, New York, 1930s-60s brings together, for the first time, three major Jewish photographers of the 20th century – Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert – and highlights their response to arriving at their respective destinations for the first time.
For Suschitzky, who fled his native Vienna and arrived in London in 1935 before becoming an assistant cameraman to renowned documentary maker Paul Rotha, the British capital comprised an intriguing mix of destitution and wealth for the socialist. It is a subject captured in many of his works, including his images of Charing Cross Road. “These photographs are very personal and show what really inspired him,” says curator Katy Barron of Suschitzky, who is today aged 103 and lives in Maida Vale.
London was also a place that inspired Bohm, whose work from the Swinging Sixties is currently on display at the Jewish Museum, but it is her rarely-seen Paris photographs that are the focus of the exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery. The 92-year-old artist, who was born in East Prussia and sent to England by her parents shortly before the war, first visited the French capital in 1947. She returned to live there for a year in 1954.
Her series of photographs capture the dilapidation of Paris and the deprivation of her people in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
Barron explains: “Dorothy’s Paris is very personal. She doesn’t photograph the clichéd places and indeed, she spent much time simply meandering through the streets with Avigdor Arikha, a Romanian-Jewish artist who was at Auschwitz. In this respect, these photographs were made with no intention at all, but much freedom.”
Photo-journalist Neil Libbert completes the trio of artists on display at Ben Uri with his images of New York taken in the early 1960s. The Salford-born photographer captures scenes across all social divides, from the affluent Upper East Side to the Harlem streets, including the 1964 race riots at close quarters. As with Suschitzky and Bohm, much of the selection of photographs by Libbert, now aged 78, have rarely been exhibited in the UK before.
“Libbert’s work says much about the history of photography,” reflects Barron. “You go from these images that are dramatic and have a social documentary feel to these transitory images of strangers that are very simple, but graphic.”
• London, Paris, New York, 1930s-60s: Photographs by Wolfgang Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert, runs from 20 May to 27 August at Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, Boundary Road, London. Details: 020 7604 3991 or www.benuri.org