Torn Poster, London
Dorothy Bohm has commented of her work:
The photograph fulfills my deep need to stop things disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains something 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.
Born into a Jewish family in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1924, Bohm was sent to England by her family in 1939 at the age of 14. As her father kissed her goodbye, he handed her his own Leica camera saying ‘it may be useful one day’. During the Second World War, Bohm studied photography in Manchester and opened her own portrait studio at the age of 21. In the late 1940s her interest in outdoor photography was stimulated by frequent visits to the Swiss Lakes when she began to focus on photographing people un-posed and within the natural environment. Afterwards, she spent a year in Paris, before continuing to travel widely.
Her early black-and-white photographs are in the tradition of the innovative humanist street photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and André Kertész, whom she knew and admired. When she began to work in colour in the 1980s she added a new sensuousness and tactility to her work. Focusing increasingly on easily overlooked details from the everyday world, she began creating complex, semi-abstract images in which the human presence is nonetheless always implicit.
Torn Poster, London (1990), a close-up photograph of a billboard hoarding is one of a series of works featuring torn posters, graffiti and other urban ephemera (Bohm often waits for such subject-matter to ‘mature’). Here, the eroded and weather-ravaged poster in its distressed condition resembles a collage, dramatic in content and strongly-coloured. Although the original meaning is lost, each fragment hints at past events as both history and art history are layered including notably (lower left) one of the heads thrown back in agony from Picasso’s Guernica (1937), expressing his horror at the bombing of the Basque capital by General Franco’s German allies during the Spanish Civil War. This image is juxtaposed with the face of a woman wearing a soldier’s helmet (upper right) – a disturbing intimation of conflict– offset by fragments of sky and landscape in between. It is part of a powerful group of works which represent, as Monica Bohm-Duchen has commented, ‘a palimpsest of contemporary western culture which forcefully conveys its fickleness’. Bohm herself observes that she is keen to preserve a sense of mystery in her photographs: ‘Sometimes I want a picture to ask why and not to be too easily deciphered and decoded because our lives are often like that’.
Dorothy Bohm has been instrumental in a number of important photographic initiatives including the co-founding of the Photographer’s Gallery in 1971. Torn Poster, London was included in the 2007 exhibition of her work, Ambiguous Realities: Colour Photographs by Dorothy Bohm at the Ben Uri.