My gran, a pioneer with a camera

Gerti Deutsch shot some of last century’s most famous musicians. Her granddaughter, Rebecca Hopkinson, pays tribute


Captured by Gerti Deutsch: a masked figure at the Schemenlaufen festival in a Tyrolean village, 1951

Captured by Gerti Deutsch: a masked figure at the Schemenlaufen festival in a Tyrolean village, 1951

Gerti Deutsch was one of the most original and prolific documentary photographers of the 1930s and '40s, a status made all the more remarkable given that she was refugee from Austria who fled to the UK to evade the Nazis.

Paul Prowse, senior picture editor at the photo agency Getty Images, says: "She was a pioneering photojournalist. Gerti was part of a German invasion of compassionate photographers, including Felix Mann and Kurt Hutton, who were at the forefront of photojournalism at that time."

A retrospective of her work is currently showing at the Austrian Cultural Forum (ACF) in London, marking the 50th anniversary of her last exhibition there.

My childhood memories of my grandmother are from her final years in the late '70s, when she was living near my family in Leamington Spa. She seemed aloof and strict in comparison to my hippy parents; a product of her upbringing as the only child of a bourgeois Jewish family in Vienna in the early 20th century. My brothers and I had to tread carefully around her antique furniture so as not to disturb the polished ornaments on display. It is only with hindsight that I can fully appreciate her great individuality and strength, which enabled her to transcend her early conditioning and engage with the world through her photography.

Deutsch: innovative

Deutsch: innovative

Gerti was born in Vienna in 1908. She had a gift for music which was nurtured when, aged 16, she began training as a professional pianist at the Vienna Academy of Music. Sadly, her concert career ended when she developed neuritis, an inflammation of the nerves in her arms.

She then switched to photography. After fleeing her home country during the build up to the Anschluss of 1938, she pursued her interest in Paris, earning a living as a photojournalist; an option unheard of for a woman of her background at the time. In 1938 she moved to London and started working for Picture Post, the premier British photojournalistic magazine of the time. In London, she met and married my grandfather, the Post's editor, Tom Hopkinson. During her time at the magazine, from 1938 until the early '50s, her work regularly appeared alongside that of well-known contemporaries, including Bert Hardy, Leonard McCombe and Kurt Hutton, and was greatly admired. As renowned photographer, Wolf Suschitzky, has said: "If the name Gerti Deutsch is not known to you, it is because you're too young to have read Picture Post."

The exhibition at the ACF includes her first assignment for Picture Post, Kindertransport (1938), a series of images showing the transportation of German-Jewish children to a safe haven in the UK. While Gerti was deeply affected by the destruction brought about by the Nazis, she was relatively apolitical. She preferred engagement to confrontation with the world around her. Her restless curiosity led her to document the ways of life she encountered during her travels around Europe, images of which are included in the show.

Gerti's continued preoccupation with music is reflected in her portraiture. The exhibition includes her images of the most celebrated musicians of the day including Arturo Toscanini, Benjamin Britten and Yehudi Menuhin. Her love of music also comes across in family stories. One recounts how, on meeting my father, she said disappointedly to my mother: "You could have married someone more like Mozart."

In 1948 she returned to Vienna to document the city after the Nazis surrendered control to the Allies. The exhibition includes her pictures, shot as a photo-story while she accompanied a foreign correspondent, the British journalist Tony Terry.

During the '50s, Gerti and Tom divorced. She settled in Hampstead with her two daughters, where she continued to contribute regularly to publications including Tatler, Queen and Harper's Bazaar. Hampstead at that time was home to many renowned Jewish exiles, such as Ernst Gombridge, Oskar Kokoschka and Hans Keller. Unfortunately, being in such good company did not eradicate the trauma she felt from the Nazi takeover of Austria. She also felt stigmatised by British society of that time, due to her position as a Jewish exile and divorced single mother.

Gerti returned to Austria, settling in Salzburg in 1971, but she found it bland in comparison to the cultural hub she remembered from her childhood. The new era in photography of the '60s also appeared to have left her behind. But, in retrospect, her early interest in humanist subjects, and pioneer status as a female photojournalist in a world of men, proves how ahead of her time she was.

At the Austrian Cultural Forum, London SW7, until May 14. (www.acflondon.org)

    Last updated: 10:47am, March 25 2010