The photographs of three major twentieth-century photographers - Wolfgang Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert - of three great world cities across three crucial decades.
Today, London, Paris and New York are so familiar that it is hard for a modern viewer to imagine them afresh without the visual expectations fostered by art, film and advertising in the digital age.
Yet when each of these photographers arrived at their respective destinations, they found cities that were strange and new.
They responded by photographing them without prejudice or expectation.
The photographs reveal three cities defined, in many ways, by social division and political tension, but also capable of a unique and characterful beauty.
The exhibition, Ben Uri Gallery and Museum began life as an Art Society founded by émigré Jews in Whitechapel’s ghetto in July 1915. , includes many works never previously exhibited in the UK, and each series presents an opportunity to view an aspect of the work of a renowned photographer in real depth.
Wolfgang Suschitzky was born in Vienna in 1912 and arrived in London via Amsterdam in 1935, fleeing Nazi persecution. Suschitzky had trained as a photographer in his native Vienna and was already adept at both studio portraiture and street photography.
The London he encountered was one of increasing unemployment and social upheaval and he was able to record the destitution and wealth that existed side by side. Suschitzky remained in London throughout the war, working as an assistant cameraman for the noted documentary maker Paul Rotha, while living first with his sister, photographer Edith Tudor-Hart, in Brixton before finally settling with his new wife and family in The Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1941.
His status as a recent immigrant is evident in his fascination with the particularities of London, whilst his Socialist upbringing is reflected in his focus on the poor working people of the city.
Works include Suschitzky’s best-known images of the Charing Cross Road and rarely-seen photographs, such as the disturbing War in Wax (1945).
Dorothy Bohm was born in 1924 in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad) and was sent by her parents to England in June 1939. After finishing her schooling in Sussex, she trained as a photographer in wartime Manchester, and eventually settled in London. She first visited Paris in 1947 and was immediately struck by the city and its inhabitants.
She returned to live there for a year in 1954, creating a memorable body of work, which focuses on both the beauty of the city and its post-war poverty. Bohm’s Paris is a place of magic and sadness that references both pre-war photography and Surrealism.
Her images range from abstracted architectural studies of light and form along the banks of the Seine, to an intimate portrait of a young brother and sister caught hurrying home with the shopping.
Bohm suggests that, as a young photographer, she had the opportunity to photograph at close quarters – access that would have been denied her male counterparts. Very few of Bohm’s early Paris works have been previously exhibited in the UK prior to this exhibition.
Neil Libbert was born in Salford in 1938. His career as a photo-journalist that brought him to London by 1961, where he worked for The Observer, The Sunday Times and New York Times. The selected images focus on his first visits to New York in the early 1960s, where he photographed across all social divides – from the affluent Upper East Side to the Harlem streets, capturing the 1964 race riots at close quarters.
Libbert’s work reflects the contrasts and tensions that he encountered, and his images of Harlem provide the viewer with a rare, unbiased view of this troubled area. Libbert’s work has been little exhibited and his New York images are some of his strongest.
The exhibition is on at Ben Uri Gallery now, and runs until 27 August 2016. For more information, see here.