‘I’ve never ‘arranged’ my photographs, I’ve always been an observer.” So says Wolf Suschitzky, centenarian and ground-breaking photographer.
He was born in 1912 in Vienna, literally over the shop — the Buchhandlung Bruder Suschitzky, a radical booksellers. His parents were unusual in “being freethinkers who didn’t believe in God and who brought us up without any religion”. “Us” included his older sister, the photographer Edith Tudor Hart. He says: “Edith was immensely important in my life. She introduced me to classical music as well as to photography.”
Destined for a career in zoology, he fled Vienna after Austrian fascists took over the government in 1934, and his father committed suicide in despair. Edith had already emigrated to Britain and gave him a home. She also gave him his first camera. “I am a very lucky man,” he says. “I got a lot of breaks. I lived through two World Wars, and was raised by a loving father who was a socialist, a freethinker and a teetotaller.”
Suschitzky used his recently-acquired Hasselblad to take medical images for the then Burrows-Wellcome Institute in London. His portrait of Dr Ernst Chain working on penicillin spores was taken there. It was also at the Wellcome that he met the film producer Donald Alexander, and formed the UK’s first photographic co-operative. Called DATA, it made documentaries for the Ministry of Information and a monthly newsreel, Workers and Warfront. “It used new cinematic techniques to cover the labour movement during the war,” he recalls.
He also showed his personal work, photos of Charing Cross Road, to Stefan Lorant – the editor of the legendary weekly, Picture Post – who told him: “These are very nice pictures but you are not a photojournalist”. However strong the images, the story was not there.
So Suschitzky set out to get the story. He chose “the work of beekeeper, Mr Gale, who made honey. Lucky again: just one sting on my nose”. The photo-essay was published in Illustrated London News, and Suschitzky’s credentials as a photojournalist opened up.
Bees were also a way back to zoology, as were some of his new friends. Through film director Paul Rotha, he met Julian Huxley, the biologist. Rotha taught him how to use a Rolleiflex camera “to shoot animals through any available hole in a fence or between the narrowest bars”, and Huxley was secretary of the Zoological Society. In Suschitzky’s words: “I was the first photographer to take animals seriously, not just as four legs and a tail”. He worked as cameraman on the animal-themed films Ring of Bright Water and Living Free, before collecting an Oscar for The Bespoke Overcoat in 1957. In cinema, however, his name will always be associated with the phenomenally successful Get Carter, and Entertaining Mr Sloane in the 1970s.
Earlier he had shot a campaign for an East End charity, showing the extreme poverty in which poor Jews were living. “One old couple were making lunch. They had boiled spuds, which they invited me to share. They used newsprint for a tablecloth,” he says.
Suschitzky paid repeated visits to Israel, where he obtained access to photograph Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1957. Although no Zionist, Suschitzky concluded: “I held no personal grudge, I think he probably did a good job for his country”.