Made in Manchester, she photographed the world

Dorothy Bohm is famous for images taken in a huge variety of countries, in a huge variety of styles


By Amanda Hopkinson, April 22, 2010
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Performers at the 1984 Venice Carnival

Performers at the 1984 Venice Carnival

Between her early photographic beginnings at the Studio Alexander in Manchester in the 1940s and her triumphant return to the city's Art Gallery this month, Dorothy Bohm has caught a world in her lens. She does not focus on the extremes of war and suffering, however, or succumb to the soothing calm of pictorial landscapes and cosy travel shots. Instead, her observed world lies in details of form, shape and light; in human relationships, both glancing and intimate, often of the kind most easily overlooked; and in the unobtrusively unexpected, something that may be just around any corner, there to engage an attentive eye.

Bohm's 60-year career as a photographer has been marked by its variation. In her earliest studio work, she dared to use colour and include smiles in her poses, contrasting with her "paintings in black-and-white", casual portraits taken outdoors, using natural light.

In the 1950s she conducted more dramatic experiments with natural and man-made environments, while in the '90s she used mannequins and models as a substitute for human beings and torn posters became "walls and windows".

Now, as her daughter, art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, points out in her essay for the catalogue accompanying the Manchester Art Gallery exhibition, she is experimenting again, alternating photographs of youthful sitters with shots of angled abstractions on an architectural scale, and taking classical still lives, often arranged on window sills at her Hampstead home.

A young Dorothy Bohm in the 1940s

A young Dorothy Bohm in the 1940s

Born into a German-speaking Jewish community in Konigsberg in 1924, Bohm was sent abroad by her family in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. While her family was effectively trapped in Memel, in Lithuania, the teenaged Dorothy attended school in Sussex.

The 1940s were the heyday of formal portraiture - London's Bond Street boasted several studios run by glamorous and imposing women, including Dorothea Wilding and Mme Yevonde. On leaving school, Bohm's first port of call was the studio of the Czech-French photographer Germaine Kanova, who offered her an apprenticeship. War and, more specifically, the Blitz intervened, and the Kanova studio closed.

However, war also guaranteed a clientele of those desperate for a lifelike (or idealised) representation of their loved ones to accompany them during separation. Bohm moved north to attend Manchester's College of Technology, where she obtained her City & Guilds in photography. By 1942, she was not only qualified but had returned to the college to teach evening classes to demobbed soldiers. And in 1940, she had met Louis Bohm, a Polish Jew, also spirited out of his homeland to the relative security of
Britain.

When the pair married in 1945, Louis continued his chemistry PhD, while Dorothy worked to support them both, moving on from employment in a Kodak photo-lab to work in a new photo-studio as a portraitist. A year later, she borrowed £300 and set up her own Studio Alexander on Market Street in Manchester. Five years later and photography could become a way of life rather than the means to earn a living.

The camera accompanied Bohm to her subsequent homes: to Ascona and Paris, to Sussex and Aix. It is in these places that she has taken some of her least assuming and most striking images. Visitors to the exhibition can view the image captured in Ticino in 1948 of the blond fruit-seller in her gingham apron, averting her flirtatious smile from the real object of her attention to the camera; or study the photo of the semi-demolished houses echoed in the upturned baskets of Les Halles in the 1950s, when the Bohms stopped and stayed a year; or enjoy dappled shadows and poppy-red chairs scattered across a long shot of an empty Provençal cafe.

And this by way of Japan and South Africa, Mexico and Israel, the USA and the USSR, Crete and Stockholm, where the focus of her work rests on the intense and the intimate, the quirky and quizzical.

"I have spent my lifetime taking photographs," says Bohm. "I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places."

A World Observed: 1940-2010 is showing at Manchester Art Gallery from April 24–August 30. Details at www.manchestergalleries.org

    Last updated: 11:40am, April 22 2010