Widely regarded as one of the doyennes of British photography, legendary photographer Dorothy Bohm (22nd June 1924 – 15th March 2023) has died at the age of 98.
“The photograph […] makes transience less painful and retains some of the special magic, which I have looked for and found. I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.” – Dorothy Bohm
For Dorothy Bohm, photographs fulfilled a ‘deep need to stop things from disappearing’. Born Dorothea Israelit in June 1924 in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), to a German-speaking family of Jewish-Lithuanian origins, Dorothy was sent to England in 1939 to escape Nazism. It was here that she studied photography, earning qualifications through both the Manchester Municipal College of Technology, and City and Guilds.
Her creative practice was marked by a continuously shifting approach to both content and method. She began her career as a portrait photographer, her talent for which was quickly identified with a prize following her graduation. Working under the photographer Samuel Cooper for four years, she eventually set up her own portrait studio, Studio Alexander, in 1946. ‘This was during the war’, she remarked in conversation with Vanessa Ansa, ‘so portraits were wanted by everybody.’
By the late 1950s, Dorothy had turned her attention towards street photography, but was still working predominantly in black and white. In 1980 she experimented with colour using a Polaroid SX-70 instant camera, working exclusively in colour from 1985 onwards. A lifelong devotee of her craft, Dorothy leaves behind “a kind of photographic history – 32 countries, 20 books and 26 shows.”
The diversity of Dorothy’s practice reflects the variance which characterised her life. Accompanying her husband Louis Bohm on trips abroad during his work with a petrochemical company, she visited and lived in several countries throughout the 1940s and 50s including France (Paris), the United States (New York and San Francisco), and Mexico. She travelled widely throughout her life, photographing in Spain, Italy, South Africa, the USSR, and Egypt, to name a few.
Dorothy also created space for other photographers to flourish. She was an Associate Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, and founded the Focus Gallery for Photography in 1998 alongside Helena Kovac.
According to Monica Bohm-Duchen, Dorothy’s daughter and an independent writer, lecturer, and curator, Dorothy expressed some ambivalence towards the idea that being a woman photographer had been disadvantageous. As Monica writes in her essay Portrait of the Photographer as a Woman, ‘far from seeing her gender as a handicap, [Dorothy] has more than once declared that it has been a distinct advantage to her, permitting an intimacy and immediacy of access to her subjects often denied to the male of the species.’
‘Despite the pitfalls of gender stereotyping and essentialising generalisations’, Dorothy herself tended to confirm the claim that women express a natural empathy towards their photographic subjects. The nuance and subtle irony with which Dorothy captured images of everyday life, particularly of women, is a hallmark of her oeuvre.
From a young girl clutching her almost life-size doll, to a ‘Parisian cleaning lady [who] wields one broom like a weapon’, to later photographs in which ‘real women merge with representations’ such as mannequins and posters, ‘the best of Dorothy Bohm’s images of women […] transmit their full meanings only gradually, compelling us – men and women alike – to reconsider what we think we know.’