Pallant House explores the Sussex photographs of Dorothy Bohm
A key figure in the history of photography, Dorothy Bohm (born 1924) is well-known for her street photographs of London, Paris and New York, but during the 1960s, when the Jewish wartime émigré was settling into rural life in Sussex, it was the people and landscape of the rural county by the sea that became her muse.
This Pallant exhibition presents a selection of the black and white photographs she took depicting Sussex life during the 1960s and 1970s – presenting them as a body of work that has not previously been exhibited as a focused display.
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All taken on a Rolleiflex, the images provide a candid and often humorous window on a bygone era of Sussex life, whilst offering a resounding sense of familiarity: people devour ice-cream on Brighton seafront, nuns sit on a bench on Worthing pier, farmers crowd the cattle market at Haywards Heath people picnic at the Horsham steam fair.
There are also some atmospheric landscapes, taken on and near the family’s working farm at Coneyhurst, Billingshurst, that offer poetic but recognisable views of the South Downs.
Bohm’s journey to this rural coastal idyll was a dramatic one, starting in 1939 when she arrived in England from Nazi Europe aged 14. Born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) into an assimilated Jewish family in 1924, she lived in Lithuania from 1932 to 1939. But in June of that year, as the threat of Nazism became acute, she was sent to England.
It was 20 years until she saw her parents and baby sister again, after they survived Soviet labour camps in Siberia.
On boarding the train, her father had given her his Leica camera, telling her “this might come in useful some day”. After a short stint at a school for Jewish children in Hove, she was sent to North End House School in Ditchling, where she learnt enough English to matriculate in just one year.
Just a year later, having followed her brother to Manchester, she enrolled to study photography at Manchester College of Technology, where she met her future husband, fellow émigré Louis Bohm.
She then opened a portrait studio – Studio Alexander – in Market Street, Manchester, which supported the young couple while Louis finished his doctorate. From the 1950s onwards, their extensive travels abroad led to her abandoning studio portraiture altogether for the ‘street photography’ for which she has become celebrated.
In 1966, the Bohm family bought a farm at Coneyhurst in Billingshurst which they owned for over 20 years – it was during this time that Bohm’s fondness for Sussex deepened – her photographs representing a very personal and perceptive interpretation of a county in which she spent many years but to which she brought an outsider’s insight.
Bohm’s photographs capture what her good friend and contemporary, the Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész, called “little happenings” – split second moments of ordinary people going about their business.
Some of this ability to capture these moments Bohm puts down to being a woman, which she says allowed her to melt into the background. And despite her family experience of the holocaust she maintains that all humans have something beautiful in them and works to bring that out in her photographs.
Bohm‘s friends and contemporaries included Bill Brandt, André Kertész, Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and she was Involved in the founding of The Photographers’ Gallery in London, and was its Associate Director for 15 years, championing emerging talent, including that of the photographer Martin Parr.
Now in her nineties and living in London, Bohm is part of a larger history of women who have contributed to photography in innumerable ways, from early pioneers such as Constance Fox Talbot and Julia Margaret Cameron to photojournalist Dorothea Lange and Cindy Sherman.
But beyond gender, an unerring ability to capture the spirit of a time and a place marks her out as one of the leading lights of twentieth century documentary photography.
Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm’ will be on display in the De’Longhi Print Room at Pallant House Gallery from May 23 until September 2 2018. Entry to the exhibition is free.
Pallant House Gallery
Chichester, West Sussex
Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne townhouse and an award-winning contemporary extension. It is based in the heart of Chichester and holds one of the best collections of Modern British art in the country. There is an extensive temporary exhibition programme including…