Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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

“Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at, and what we have a right to observe.”
Susan Sontag, On Photography

I wandered into the Dorothy Bohm exhibition the wrong way round, into a room of colour still-lifes. Whilst admirable for their almost painterly skill and composition, I felt like I was missing something. Dorothy Bohm started as a portrait photographer at Studio Alexander on Market Street, and although she’s become famous as a street photographer over the course of a career spanning over half a century (she’s still taking photos today, including shots of modern Manchester, aged 80-odd) I think it’s her earlier black and white portraits at which she really excels.

There’s a curious contrast in her portraits though, which range from commissioned portraits taken at Studio Alexander to street snaps of people caught seemingly unawares. Although her Studio Alexander portraits, often commemorating special occasions, are lovely, snapshots of a long-passed age, it’s the photos of people who don’t seem to know or care she’s there that are the most interesting.

Her studio subjects all share the same soft, misty, blurry facial expression. Looking away from the camera, it’s as if they’re imagining some kind of faraway place. Just as we’re looking at her posed portraits through the distance of time and place, so it seems as if, even at the time, the sitters were not quite really there, but projecting themselves into an fictitious scenario just over their shoulder. Photographs invite us to imagine the circumstances of the subject yet it’s as if the subjects themselves are imagining themselves elsewhere.

Far more interesting are those photos which seem to be thrown up by chance, from a tramp asleep under a bridge in Paris to the weary, end of day face of the fishmonger resting on a bench at Billingsgate Market next to his wares. As Susan Sontag once noted, ‘photographs do not explain, they acknowledge’. We’re left to either explain through creating imaginary stories around them, or just appreciate the photos for what they are a relic of life at one particular moment in time.

In one scene, a man rushes through Covent Garden, past two cartoonish, theatrical cut outs of actors on the front of the theatre museum, an anonymous blur against the street. Read the small print on a poster for the museum and it says ‘I could kick myself for having walked past so many times. It’s wonderful.’ Likewise, Bohm captures the type of moments that are life’s small print, unnoticeable to all but those who are prepared to look that closely. These are the patterns and small repetitions forged everyday, from the lattice formed by uneven paving stones to the grids of light cast by windows onto a neighbouring building.

Although there are shots of the swinging ‘60s and ‘70s, replete with youth fashion, Bohm’s camera complements best the faces of the very old or the very young, perhaps because they’re at their least self-aware, unconcerned with how the rest of the world sees them. Sometimes, this process of deciding what’s worth looking at is presented ironically as in the photo of a street artist painting a sitter, which makes the act of creating a portrait as interesting as the portrait itself. Similarly, a picture of a group of punters viewing through binoculars all pointing in the same direction the Goodwood Races, suggests the act of watching is more exciting than the event itself.
Of course, you can’t capture a person in a photo, only a person at any one particular moment, framed in time. For this reason, my favourite photo in the exhibition is a dapper gentleman in a hat rushing past a row of carcasses hanging in a window, an odd juxtaposition he may not even have noticed at the time but which is forever preserved in one small, photographic slice of the world.

A World Observed 1940-2010: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm
Manchester Art Gallery
Mosley Street
M2 3JL

Until Monday August 30.

No comments: