Exhibition Review: Dorothy Bohm, Seeing and Feeling

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Lisbon, Portugal, 1963, Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Co-Founder of The Photographers’ Gallery, Dorothy Bohm has been taking photos for 60 years. Bohm’s show at London’s Margaret Street Gallery feels fresh, exciting and full of ideas

Who?

Dorothy Bohm

If you don’t know Dorothy Bohm this BBC World Service radio program is a good introduction to the photographer who left home and her Jewish, German-speaking family in Lithuania in 1939 at 14 to escape the threat of the Nazis. And though her mother and sister survived, they were deported to the Soviet Union and she wouldn’t see them again for 20 years. Leaving school in Sussex, Bohm took a photography course in Manchester, and assisted photographer Samuel Cooper for four years before setting up her own portrait studio as a 21 year-old.

She married her husband Louis Bohm in 1945, his work involved international travel and living abroad, and this show illustrates her eye for the patterns and shapes of very different cities and environment, shooting in black and white right through to the 1980s.

Monte Carlo, 1987, Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

The popularity of a show at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in 1969 in which Bohm featured, eventually lead to her co-founding The Photographers’ Gallery In London. Like another great image-maker, Judith Kerr who also fled the Nazis for England (Kerr created the children’s book character Mog, a cat who eventually dies of old age) Bohm’s work is not at all sentimental, which is what you would expect from creatives who have seen and felt the dark side of humanity.

What?

The show, Seeing and Feeling, at the Margaret Street Gallery in London provides a large-scale retrospective of her work, from the late 1940s right through to the 2009, as Bohm is still shooting.

Decisive Moment?

Any early image. Say the photos from Lago Maggiore, Ticino Switzerland in the 1950s. The deck of the boat with its gaps, lines, furry rope, handrails a visual abstraction of light and shade.

Lago Maggiore,Ticino, 1950s. Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Or the tree by the lake, the visual plane of the photo broken up into angular collage of mountain tops, rope and shadow that cracks the ground. Bohm is seduced by geometry and the play of the image and it’s a vision pursued through 60 years of photographs. At the gallery I had a peek through the monograph produced for Bohm’s retrospective show in Manchester, A World Observed 1940-2010: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, and one of the essays does suggest she was influenced by, or at least was aware of Russian Constructivism.

Lago Maggiore, Ticino, 1950, Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Her work has a sense of the photographic image as a rich fabrication of time, and it’s there right from the earliest work. As Bohm tells the BBC, “I think essentially we remain what we have been. I find in my own age I relate to thing’s the same way as I did when I was a young person.” The edit of the show is remarkably focused gently highlighting the themes and energy of her photography, a perspective aided by the long sweep of the Margaret Street gallery.

Still life, Sussex, 1990's. Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Trend?

There are the Polaroids, but ironically they look nothing like the wave of retro images currently available via cameraphone filters. Trend? Probably collage, which for a whole lot of reasons to do with technology and the availability of imagery is the visual language of the moment (see John Stezaker at the Deutsche Borse show). Bohm’s found collage feels like the archeology of modernity.

Torn Poster, London, 1997. Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Torn Poster, London, 1997. Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Which Image/Which Room?

Can I take 2? Bohm’s work has a deadpan humour, and occasionally she casts her eye on the act of looking, and what we are like when we look.  The Schoolboys and Teacher, Metro Station features drama and colour, and the wry intrusion of an advert. I want to see this in my kitchen, drinking coffee, it will perk me up and remind me that today, I need to stay open to the unexpected.

Schoolboys and Teacher, Metro Station, Paris, 1988. Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Second image would be the romantic swoon of Venice for the living room, more picture watching. The symmetry of love.

Dorothy Bohm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1982

One question for the image-maker?

Is that bust really floating in space?!

King's Road, Chelsea, London, 1960s. Dorothy Bohm. Copyright: Dorothy Bohm Archive.

Click for more info on Dorothy Bohm

Click for more info on the Dorothy Bohm show and the Margaret Street Gallery

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