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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Exhibitions - A World Observed 1940 - 2010: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm - Manchester Art Gallery

Star rating – 8/10

I went along to this new exhibition of photographs by Dorothy Bohm after having heard a radio interview with her, but not being familiar with her work. She certainly sounded like a very interesting, talented and empathetic woman, and that is exactly how she comes across from looking at this display of a lifetime’s work and passion.

Bohm was born in 1924 in East Prussia, and grew up in a Jewish family in a Europe becoming dominated by the Nazis. Her family fled to England at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Dorothy was 15. She took up photography at the suggestion of her father, who thought she was very observant. And how right he was. From Manchester where she first based herself, and then travelling throughout the world, her tremendous power of seeing a moment in time and being able to capture it for ever with her camera is astonishing.

Her forte is street photography – not posed but just capturing ordinary people going about their lives and connecting with them in a way which needs tremendous empathy and humility. One photo here shows a woman walking her dog and talking to a street cleaner having a break as she passes in 1970s Rome. Bohm used to always use black and white film, as she felt that colour was distracting. Then in the 1980’s she discovered the medium of Polaroid, and started to work in colour, still making the human figures the centre of much of her work. She used, and indeed still uses today aged 85, what she regards as a pure form of photography, that is she does not use digital cameras and does not manipulate the images in any way. Instead she tries to capture the scenes before her, as they appear to her.

She explains her desire to capture precious moments on film forever as being rooted in her childhood experiences of losing so much in such a distressful way. And capture precious moments she certainly does. There is a great photo of a rural Swiss woman from 1948 stood in the field with her animals, staring straight at the camera with the years of hard work showing not only in the lines on her face but in her facial expression too.

Bohm is interested in capturing vulnerability, ‘happiness that passes and beauty that fades’. She travelled widely ad there beautiful photos here from New York, London, Cordoba, Lisbon and Haifa among many, many other places. One particularly striking shot is of two young boys in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1950. The older one is obviously completely at ease with his photographer, and laughs with her as he gives his young companion a piggy back. This charming portrait shows how Bohm can effortlessly relate to children, as she loves to do.

This exhibition is one of dignity, of ordinary people in their own environments, captured in time; from some trendy hipsters in a Kings Road bar in Chelsea in the 1960s, to a fishmonger from Billingsgate Market. Bohm is an extremely intuitive photographer. But not all her photos are of people. Some are beautifully captured moments in urban and rural settings. One from 1994 captures the fog settling over Lake Lugaro in Switzerland brilliantly. Bohm also appreciates the beauty of present day Manchester, and the most recent pieces bring us bang up to date with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Urbis and murals in the Northern Quarter of the city.

Bohm’s photos reveal so much about her personality. They remind us to take time out to appreciate a beautiful moment instead of rushing on by. And that just cannot be a bad thing.

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