Life & Culture

I’ll never retire, I prefer to be taking pictures


Dorothy Bohm has a fascination with light. And looking into her sharp, light blue eyes you get the impression that she sees things as clearly at the age of 91 as she ever did. So it comes as no surprise to learn that this much-exhibited photographer is still taking photos and has just published another book of her work, About Women.

I meet Bohm in her Hampstead home where we sit surrounded by beautiful things - objets d'art and walls covered in artwork, some of it her own - framed photographs from a career that spans seven decades. While rummaging through old photos she points to two paintings hanging in the bedroom that hold particular significance for her. They are both still lifes of flowers painted by her father, who discovered a creative streak when he arrived in Britain after Bohm and her late husband rescued her parents from a post-war life of poverty in Riga.

Bohm herself arrived in Britain aged 14 after her father managed to get her a visa allowing her to escape Nazi-ruled Memel (now known as Klaipeda), Lithuania, in 1939. Born in Konigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1924, Bohm and her family had moved to Lithuania in 1932 as the Nazis' power increased.

"I arrived on the eve of my 15th birthday. A traumatic experience because I had watched what Nazis were doing and the whole family was under great threat. After all these years it is still traumatic for me to remember those days," says Bohm in a voice still softly accented. She is keen to tell me her story and that of her family, which is an incredible one, and she tells it with impressive lucidity. Although she admits certain memories have been blocked from her mind. "They have been pushed away," she says, gesturing with her hand.

Bohm's father, Tobias Israelit, a businessman in the textiles industry, used his contacts in Britain to ensure she would be looked after. Bohm's brother was already studying at Brighton College when she arrived, and friends of her father managed to get her into a small exclusive school in Sussex where Bohm recalls she had to take lessons with the six-year-olds because she didn't know any English.

"I don't think the school ever had a foreigner or Jewish person but they were wonderful to me," she says, before adding, "My last experience of school in a German lycée, as a Jew, was absolutely terrible."

After finishing school at 16, the first time Bohm considered photography was when a cousin of her father's in Britain told her he'd noticed her being very observant and suggested she take a photography course at the Manchester College of Technology. Bohm took the City and Guilds course, and completing it in two years rather than the usual four, discovered she was a talented portraitist.

Though Bohm's father was absent throughout her formative years in Britain, her admiration and love shines through when she speaks of him. When he bid his daughter farewell in Lithuania he, somewhat clairvoyantly, handed her his old Leica camera saying "this may be useful to you". And it was his love for education, instilled in her from a young age, that she credits for her desire to continue studying after leaving school. Bohm met the second man who was to have a profound impact on her when she was just 16, her late husband Louis, who was 20 at the time and a Jewish immigrant from Poland come to study in Manchester. His sister and mother had been killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. Bohm's delicately made-up face lights up when she speaks about him. "The greatest luck of my life was this man. He wanted to marry me. All he had was a college scarf and a rusty bicycle. I said to him 'no, you have to finish your PhD and it is only if you will agree for me to be the breadwinner can we get married'. So at 21 I had the cheek and I managed it."

With Louis's encouragement and £300 borrowed from the parents of friends she opened her own photography studio in 1945 aged just 21, and was the "breadwinner" in the early days of their marriage.

Later Louis proved to have good business instinct and made a comfortable living working as an industrial scientist. "I was fortunate that my husband's income enabled me to photograph for the joy of photographing," says Bohm. Her husband and father have been the pillars of her life. "I have been a lucky person, particularly with the men. Louis - I can say that almost all the happiness in my life is due to him: the children, the fact that I can photograph without having to worry about making money."

But this is not to say that there were not any women that made their mark. Bohm has had more than a dozen books of her work published and held numerous exhibitions including at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, yet her latest collection About Women is the first to focus on women as a theme.

It becomes clear as we speak that some of the biggest influences on Bohm's work have been women. She speaks with great fondness of Eva Silberman, the non-Jewish wife of her cousin Sam. Silberman was a Bauhaus photographer who was killed by the Nazis when she refused to denounce Sam. He it was, having fled to Britain, who introduced Bohm to French-Czech studio photographer Germaine Kanova in London, sparking Bohm's interest in the art. "That sealed my fate; a wonderful woman. What I saw on her walls delighted me," says Bohm.

But it was Bohm's close relationship with Marie Nordlinger, an artist famous for her friendship with Marcel Proust, which had the biggest influence on her work. "My opportunity to meet a woman like this was wonderful and she couldn't have been a better 'grandmother' to me. I was 16 and she was in her 60s. I think it made the war years in Manchester much easier for me.

"She had been an artist and had lived in Paris. Her house was amazing; books and paintings. She was the first person to encourage me with my photography," says Bohm.

It was in the late-1940s that Bohm began to expand from portraiture into outdoor photography. "Now I'm sometimes called a street photographer," she says laughing. "And because Cartier-Bresson is called a 'street photographer' I don't mind, but I think it's a silly name."

Bohm often travelled in Europe with her husband, making frequent visits to France, Spain, Italy and Greece, with Bohm taking photos wherever she went. Many of the photos Bohm took there were of women going about their daily lives. "We got to know the people who live there which is important, and you see it in the pictures. My affinity and respect for these women - who had hard lives. It is my empathy for the women that comes through."

Bohm has two daughters and four grandchildren. She is overjoyed that her daughter, art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, now acts as her curator, saying she understands photography in "a broader sense". For Bohm it is important that her work conveys emotion. She explains: "I cannot take a picture unless I feel attracted to it. It has to do with feeling. Not only seeing."

There is certainly an intimacy in her photos. In About Women one photo depicts an elderly woman in Greece, her face lined and weather-worn, looking penetratingly into the camera against a backdrop of isolated hilly countryside. A second photo shows the same woman pulling a wheelbarrow up the hill. In others glamorous looking American women pose and smile for Bohm.

When I ask if the experience of being a refugee, an outsider, has had an influence on her work she says: "I never felt a refugee. I never called myself one. It's pride I suppose. The fact that I have lived through the Hitler era has certainly had a great impact on my way of living and thinking and acting. No doubt about that."

Bohm makes a point of speaking of her pride in being British and Jewish. "I don't think there is a better country in the world. Being Jewish has never been a disadvantage. I have a lot of non-Jewish friends but I always make sure they know I am. I'm not religious but I'm proud of being Jewish because despite everything Jews have contributed a lot to civilisation. I always say I have had a guardian angel because my life has been incredibly full of circumstances which somehow I was able to resolve, so I am a very lucky person," she says.

The remarkable story of her parents is likely to be another reason that she counts her blessings. Having survived the Nazis, her father was then sent to a Soviet labour camp for five years before being exiled with her mother and younger sister in Biysk, in the Altai region of Russia.

When Bohm saw them again it was 1960 and they were living in poverty in Soviet-ruled Riga, Latvia. Bohm says it took her and her husband years to get permission to bring them to Britain, a feat made possible by then leader-of-the-opposition Harold Wilson. Wilson was going to meet Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to talk about antisemitism. On hearing this news, Bohm and Louis went to Wilson's home, after finding his address listed in the phone book, and hand-delivered a letter asking for his help. Bohm says they had written on the envelope: "Please take this on your flight to Russia."

Incredibly, when Wilson returned from his trip it was announced on the news that an elderly Jewish couple had been given permission to join their daughter in England.

She still takes photos, but only when the light, and her mood, are right. "Retiring doesn't apply to me," she says. "As long as I am alive I shall be a photographer.''

Dorothy Bohm's photos of 1960s London will be exhibited at the Jewish Museum in April

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