Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm

A retrospective on one of Britain's most accomplished street photographers

Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm Dorothy Bohm is one of Britain’s finest street photographers,​ arriving in the UK in 1939 after fleeing Nazi persecution in Lithuania​. At 92 she continues to take pictures, capturing moments in life with humanity and compassion. With contributions from friends and family, and reflections from Dorothy herself, this ​insightful documentary reflects her most important images and revisits the places that have shaped her unique view of the world.

“The great thing about Dorothy is that she had a story to tell. Of loss, of displacement,” says writer and historian Ian Jeffrey. Dorothy Bohm was born in 1924 in Königsberg, East Prussia, to a thriving Jewish family. “I had a very happy childhood there,” she remembers, before her tone turns melancholy, “So many things happened afterwards.” In 1932, Dorothy’s family made the decision to migrate to Lithuania in the wake of simmering antisemitism. Seven years later, Hitler’s invasion sparked a hurried exodus to England. Her father left them at the train station, bestowing Dorothy one last gift: his camera. “I leant out of the carriage and my father took off his Leica and said, ‘This might be useful to you now.’ I had no interest in photography at all. Odd.” From this disrupted childhood would emerge inspiration and a lifelong passion to document the world around her.

Once in the UK a cousin of Dorothy’s father suggested that she studied photography in Manchester, and she was accepted at the young age of sixteen. By 1946, she would have her own studio. “I think the difference with her and other photographers is that she’s not just seeing the picture, she’s feeling the pictures and so that emotion comes out in the imagery,” says photographer Marissa Roth, “So you feel her pictures, you feel the passion in it, you feel the emotion, the pathos, the humour, the irony.”

Dorothy has lived through and documented immense changes in world history. It began by her return to the European mainland after the fall of Nazism. “The early pictures were mainly on the continent and the continent recovering from Hitler,” she recalls, “It was just the beginning of new life for these people.” Her photographs provide not only a window into a bygone era, but into the lives of the individuals that inhabited it. “If you want your subject to surrender something of themselves and reveal something, you in turn have to give of yourself, you have to make yourself open and vulnerable and not everybody can do that,” muses Roth, “I think Dorothy does that magnificently again because she is open, warm, passionate, emotional, honest.”

In 2010 a new exhibition brought Dorothy back to Manchester, where her photography, and her relationship with her lifelong love Louis Bohm, first blossomed. The Second World War had left its indelible mark on both of them. “We never spoke about the past, it was too sad. We lived in the present and he had a very optimistic streak in him, fortunately.” The couple had raised two children and were living in Hampstead by the time Louis passed away. Dorothy remembers overcoming her grief. “Photography helped me and I’ve done a lot and Louis, who encouraged me such a lot, never saw how much.”

Now within her ninth decade of life, Dorothy continues to take to the streets to document the people, the culture, and the humanity that inhabits them. Despite past occasions where she has suggested an end to her work, the camera always returns to her hand. “Photography’s in Dorothy’s bloodstream,” summarises writer and curator Colin Ford, “She will never give it up.”

The Producers

Richard Shaw has been producing short form films for museums and galleries for over eight years. He has developed work on various themes and contributed to exhibitions at Imperial War Museum North, Museum of Liverpool, Manchester Museum and the Science Museum, London. Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm is his first feature-length film. Richard is director of Unity House, a content agency and producers of Seeing Daylight.

Monica Bohm-Duchen is Dorothy’s eldest daughter and a London-based art historian. Her latest book is Art and the Second World War (Lund Humphries, 2013), and her essay “The Two World Wars” was published in War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflict (Reaktion Books, 2017). She is currently organising a nationwide arts festival to pay tribute to the contribution made to British culture by refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe.

Making The Film

Seeing Daylight: The Photography of Dorothy Bohm is produced by Unity House, a team of filmmakers and storytellers based in Manchester. Having worked in the arts and heritage sector for several years, Unity House director Richard Shaw decided to make a longer form documentary about photography icon and survivor of Nazi persecution, Dorothy Bohm. Seeing Daylight was an opportunity to not only explore Dorothy’s most famous images, but also return her to Manchester – the city she escaped to in 1939 and where her life behind the camera began.

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