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‘Little happenings’ in which so much happens

04 January, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Dorothy Bohm’s photograph of Jewish and Muslim children in Haifa, Israel in 1959

A LITTLE girl and boy stand together looking world weary after running errands. The girl clutches a box to her chest while the boy, who is older, is carrying what looks like a bottle of wine. They look prematurely aged holding adult expressions. But look closer and the oddness of the scene shifts when you see the boy’s cardigan is buttoned wrongly. Suddenly he is back to being a little boy again.

This image, taken in 1954 by the photographer and Hampstead resident Dorothy Bohm, forms one of more than 20 pictures of children from her vast archive now on display at the V&A Museum of Childhood.

Divided loosely into informal categories, we are drawn into Bohm’s world where her eye for mischief and comedy as well as pathos is at play.

There is the little girl in Israel who, seeing Bohm bend down to take a photograph of her and her friends, promptly mimics her and bends downs too with an impish grin.

Or the child dressed in a clown’s outfit who is bawling their eyes out. The tears of a clown? Perhaps. Bohm certainly sees the comedy in it.

One “click!” and this funny “little happening” is captured. Just like the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”, this “little happening”, a phrase coined by Bohm’s friend the photographer André Kertész, is a trademark of Bohm’s photographs.

Still taking photographs at 94, the length of her career enables us to see patterns and common themes that a shorter career would not have afforded.

Born in Königsberg, East Prussia, to a wealthy family, the rise of Nazism would force her to flee her home and family.

Indeed it was in 1939, just before her 16th birthday, that her parents sent her to England. She recalls how as they said their farewells her father handed her his Leica camera, adding it might come in useful to her. It was a curious gift, given that the young Bohm had never showed the slight bit of interest in photography.

All that was to change however and after her schooling she trained to be a photographer in wartime Manchester. Aged just 21, she opened her own portrait studio there.

She would go on to co-found the Photographers’ Gallery and has amassed an archive of photographs that are diverse in their locations and subject matters.

For Bohm there is a satisfaction in seeing these photographs of children together.

As she wrote in 1971: “I am deeply aware of the vulnerability of human existence – happiness that passes, beauty that fades… The child in the photograph forever stays a child.”

Little Happenings: photographs of children by Dorothy Bohm is at the V&A Museum of Childhood until March 17.


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