As a complement to his recent feature on the work of photographer Edith Tudor-Hart, Contributing Writer Mark Richards explores the photography of her brother, Wolfgang Suschitzky
Bethnal Green, 1937
I had the privilege of meeting the late Wolfgang Suschitzky (1912-2016) three times – once at an exhibition opening, once at a book signing and, most recently, when he agreed to a portrait session and interview last year. His apartment was like a treasure-trove with walls covered in Photographs, prints and works of art, providing an evocative glimpse into the mind of an artist who, over seven decades, produced some of the most memorable photographs of his generation.
Wolf was kind enough to share some insights into his photographic career and the context of many of his photographs – in particular his famous Charing Cross Series. Born in Austria in 1912, Wolf grew up in the same environment as his his older sister Edith Tudor-Hart. His father, Wilhelm Suschitzky, ran a Socialist bookshop in Vienna and was of Jewish origin, but had renounced his faith and become an atheist. It is clear from his work, and from speaking to him, that Wolf was a humanist who had remarkable empathy with his subjects, both human and animal. His humanity is the golden thread which links all of his photographs together.
I know of many attempts to categorise Wolf’s photography but the breadth of his work defies any simple description. For me, what is most striking about Wolf as a photographer was his versatility and his ability to apply himself to many different situations. Above all, Wolf was an opportunist with an outstanding eye for what works visually and how to execute it technically. He was in turn a documentary photographer, a portrait photographer, a photographer of animals and an accomplished cinematographer. Whichever mode he was in, his photographs reveal an humane clarity of vision born out of one common characteristic, which was his patience. When I asked him what he thought was the most important element of any photograph, his reply was simple – he said it was timing. Choosing when to press the button and capture a moment was the key to many of his most striking images.
Wolf had originally planned to be a Zoologist but his interest in photography was encouraged by his sister, Edith, who had studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau and eventually he enrolled there too. When I asked him about the Bauhaus and what influence it had on his photography he was quite dismissive, saying that all they taught him was how to make a good print. The course was technical and does not seem to have been a great deal of help when it came to the aesthetics of photography and what makes a great photograph. For that, he had to look to other influences such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis and the emerging Bill Brandt.
Yet the technical rigour instilled into him at the Bauhaus laid the foundation on which much of his future success as a photographer was built. You can have the best eye in the world for composition, but it is of little use if you cannot take a good photograph and print it properly. He told me that he always made his own prints and much of his creative interpretation came in the darkroom. He had remarkable skills that are now all but lost in this age of digital photography.
Wolf left Austria in 1934 and stayed briefly in London before moving to Amsterdam with his new wife. After this short marriage, his wife left him and he returned to London in 1935. He later attributed his survival to the failure of that marriage, but for their separation he might not have survived the war.
His modesty, patience and sensitivity come through in much of his work. They are evidenced by not trying to impose himself on the subjects but allowing them to flow through his lense to the printed image. His archive includes an astonishing range of work from projects he initiated as well as seventy years of commissioned photography.
One of Wolf’s most well-known set of photographs is his Charing Cross Series, taken early in his career. As a foreigner in London, he was able to see the city through fresh eyes and took many photographs of everyday life in the capital, which as – a new arrival – seemed far from normal to him. As photographers, we all recognise the sense of excitement in exploring a new city and photographing subjects which the locals perceive to be unremarkable.
Wolf’s excitement and interest in his new environment comes through in this series. While many of the photographs possess technical excellence, much of the significance of the series has been acquired in the decades that have passed since the photographs were first taken. He was a struggling photographer at the time, so much of what he took in his early years was opportunistic, aimed at making some money – often with limited success. Originally, Wolf wanted to produce a book of his Charing Cross photographs but the cost was prohibitive and he could not find anyone to publish it.
As London was overtaken by war, Wolf’s adopted city was changed forever. During those dark times, he captured some remarkable images of London at the height of the Blitz. Yet, even when photographing these subjects, Wolf managed to preserve his distinctive style and stand out from those that merely sought to capture scenes for the record.
Throughout his life, Wolf maintained his interest in Zoology and took many remarkable photographs at London Zoo, where he enjoyed interacting with animals enormously. Wolf considered these photographs to be portraits in the proper sense of the word and they took a huge amount of patience to execute.
As well as his accomplished documentary photography, Wolf had a particular talent for taking portraits. His modesty, good nature and empathy enabled him to put his subjects at ease. When I asked him why he moved into portraiture, his answer was simple – he did it to bolster his income. Yet his relationship with portraiture was clearly much more than that because it included street portraits for which he earned no fee. Wolf treated both the famous and those were not famous on an equal footing, always striving to preserve the dignity of his subjects.
Much like his sister, Wolf was committed to social justice and some of his photographs revealed the poverty of Londoners, especially children. His photograph of two children playing with a matchbox has many similarities to the famous Bakery Window by Edith Tudor-Hart. However, Wolf’s photograph was not staged but taken as a candid snapshot of deprivation in the East End.
In addition to his ability to portray people and animals, Wolf also possessed an impressive ability to capture the atmosphere of the urban environment, as you can see in the pictures below. Yet I cannot show the entire range of Wolfgang Suschitzky’s work here, I have not even touched on his work as a cinematographer. Out of a number of books available, the most recent is Seven Decades of Photography published by Synema, which I highly recommended.
The fact that these photographs were all taken using film, with no preview facility and only a limited number of available frames, makes Wolf’s achievement all the more remarkable.
The Matchbox, Stepney, 1936
Charing Cross Road, 1937
Man outside Foyles, 1936
This celebrated photograph of Foyles’ bookshop appears staged but, in fact, is a classic street photograph. Wolf waited patiently across the road for his subject to appear. He told me that he took the photograph speculatively, on the basis that Foyles might be interested in buying it for advertising, but when he presented it to them it was rejected as being of insufficient interest – a decision which seems remarkable in retrospect.
Charing Cross Rd, 1937
Shoe Shine, Charing Cross Rd, 1937
Wolf told me that this was a Soho gangster who was not pleased at having his photograph taken, but the woman in the photograph seemed quite flattered and posed for the camera. It is a striking social contrast between the well-dressed gangster and the man shining his shoes.
Milkman, Charing Cross Rd, 1935
Paving Charing Cross Rd, 1936
Even as late as 1936, they were using wooden blocks covered with tar to pave roads even though the number of horses in London had reduced drastically. The blocks were to absorb the noise from horses’ hooves and soften the impact for them.
St Paul’s Cathedral through the window of a bombed-out building, 1942
View east from St Paul’s Cathedral, 1942
War time pig-sty, 1942
Guy the Gorilla, London Zoo, 1958
Wolf described this remarkable photograph of Guy the Gorilla to me as being the best picture he ever took. The picture was taken after Wolf persuaded the zoo keeper to allow him to poke his camera through the bars of Guy’s cage, something that would be impossible today. In the resulting image, Guy looks both sentient and resigned to his fate. A magnificent creature imprisoned in a small cage at the will of humankind. The photograph, which was published widely and used by Virginia McKenna in one of her anti-zoo books, epitomises our relationship with animals and how they are often reduced to a mere commodity.
Leopard, London Zoo, 1958
H.G. Wells with his Modern Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1939
Portrait, Trinidad, 1960
Sean O’Casey, 1958
This photograph was taken out of the window of a pub where Wolf was staying for the night. It has a remarkable tonal range only possible through his skills in the darkroom, and captures the day after the tram tracks were removed and covered with tarmac.
Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, 1934
The Thames, 1952
Wolf Suschitzky, aged 104, at his flat in Maida Vale – taken by Mark Richards using Ilford XP2 film
Photographs copyright © Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky
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This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here