The following is an introduction taken from wolf suschitzky photos.., by the editors.
170 photographs are spread around Wolf’s London flat, ready for publication, while, enthralled, we listen to the photographer explaining how each of them was conceived. Once we have returned to Vienna with the material we heard so much about, we lay the pictures out before us and try to put some order into our still rather unsorted memories. Very soon we realise that their wealth lies not only within the photographs themselves but also in what Wolf has shared with us: where, when and on what occasions his pictures were taken. The photographs speak for themselves and as each thus also tells its own story, we do not want to withhold from readers and viewers what they told us. The book’s chapters have been structured to follow the narrative principle outlined above, with our introductory texts serving to lead the way through Wolf Suschitzky’s photographic life.
Communication between people, the way things relate, has always caught Suschitzky’s attention. It almost seems as if one thing were bound to attract another, as if the reclining Buddha’s feet disliked
lying there on their own in all eternity, as if a single shirt were not destined to flap forlornly in the wind. “When our London flat burnt down during the Blitz,we moved out of London for a while, to Welwyn Garden City, about an hour by train from London. One morning at breakfast, looking out of the window, I spotted these frozen shirts in the early sun. The shirts had been forgotten on the line over night.”
Suschitzky expertly manages to capture intense moments in relationships, whether it be old friends, such as dramatist Sean O’Casey and actor Barry Fitzgerald, welcoming each other warmly after a long absence, whether it be children lost in play or a couple obviously caught in a moment of tension. This picture p. 38 turned out so well because his Rolleiflex camera allowed Suschitzky to shoot at any angle without people noticing they were being photographed. When exactly this intimate scene was taken (the photographer has variously dated it 1934, 1936 and 1941) is not as important as the story it tells: “The central focus of interest in the picture is a young woman who rests her elbows firmly on the table and gazes at her companion with a stare which is both interrogative and affectionate. Her male partner leans across the table in a pose which is both supplicating and emphatic. Around the couple the other diners are shadowy figures; one can make out a head here, a profile there. It is a beguiling and mysterious photograph of a small human drama.” (Val Williams) Sometimes it is the past and the present that enter into dialogue, with everyday scenes unexpectedly turning into whimsical historical documents. Who, for instance, is still aware today that grazing sheep were once employed to look after Hyde Park’s well-kept lawns? Long gone, too, are the streets of Stepney tenements, where Suschitzky managed to capture the lost world of an intact community with residents meeting in the street for a neighbourly chat.
Although portraits could also end at the sitter’s chin, in Suschitzky’s photographs, they must include the hands. It is the hands that carry out chores, support the head while thinking, hold a pipe or pen, apply henna or underline what is being said with a gesture – the hands are an essential part of what constitutes someone’s personality.
Several of these photographs bear significance for Suschitzky well beyond the moment, such as the portrait of O’Casey, whom he met during an interview for NBC in 1955, from which a close lifelong friendship developed between the photographer and the dramatist and his family; or the study of Alfie Bass in The Bespoke Overcoat, Jack Clayton’s directorial debut, which was to win the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1955.
“Suschitzky’s approach is almost abstract. Instead of documenting poverty, the spare curve-like appearance of the metal bedsteads implies it without going into time-consuming detail. Note that lighting is expressionistic, rather than harshly revealing, without emotion.” (Martin S. Dworkin)
Likewise, the portrait p. 55 of a woman suffering from leprosy, who held up the part of her body for Suschitzky that used to be a hand, also had a lasting effect. “A charity asked me to work on a film about leprosy in Tamil Nadu, South India. It was for an appeal to support research and treatment of sufferers. Richard Bigham was director, and his wife Joanna was organiser. On our return LEPRA used this picture for an appeal in the press. It collected about £250,000. That was quite a lot of money in those days.”
Work is a term generally associated with images of bent backs, regardless of whether a particular task involves pushing a cart, doing the laundry, sweeping up, threshing grain, carrying heavy loads, fetching water or shining a customer’s shoes.
Work looks the same all over the world, no matter whether it be women from India’s lowest caste sweeping dust, or children performing artistic feats at the beach in Bombay (Mumbay) to earn a few coins, whether leather is being polished in a Shoe Shine Parlour, whether a barker is soliciting customers at a Hampstead Heath fair or women are fetching water at a Sardinian well. “The well was contaminated, because DDT had been used to fight the mosquitoes as part of the Marshall Plan. The white crosses painted on houses indicate that the house was sprayed with DDT.”
Suschitzky travelled to India several times. The picture of the woman washing clothes was taken in 1961, while Suschitzky was shooting The Peaceful Revolution, a film on the electrification of India. “I saw this woman doing her washing in a temple tank, as it is called there. They bang the clothes against a stone to get the soap to penetrate, and after rinsing, to get the water out. They say that only in India can a woman break a stone with a shirt.
Charing Cross Road
Even though the photographs were only published in book-form some fifty years after they were taken, the Charing Cross Road series is among Suschitzky’s best known works. Hailing from a family of booksellers and publishers himself, Suschitzky took his photographs of London’s “street of books” in the mid-1930s.
“When I first came to London, I was fascinated to see whole streets devoted to a specific trade; there was Fleet Street with its news offices and printing shops; in another street, Hatton Gardens, the jewellers had their shops. Charing Cross Road was full of bookshops. Each shop also offered books, mostly second-hand fare, outside, and there were always passers-by browsing through the tomes. That gave me the idea of making a book about the street and the neighbouring nightlife district of Soho.”
A bookshop with a claim to fame is Marks & Co, at number 84, outside which Suschitzky set up his camera in 1937 – the shop sign is visible in the left of the picture. Years later, the booksellers there were to carry on a correspondence with a New York client, Helene Hanff, which was published as a book, play and film; incidentally, the photographer recalls, the famous London fog could not be attributed to the British climate but was caused by heating private homes.
Neither does Suschitzky fail to see what goes on in the streets and alleys away from the urban bustle. He photographs children playing in a dreary backyard, road-menders, a milkman pushing his cart through the rain or collecting money from his customers, and a knife grinder in his open-air workplace. “Many years after I had taken this picture, I had a letter from Canada. The writer had seen this picture in my little book Charing Cross Road in the Thirties and had recognized the knife sharpener as her father. She requested a print, which I sent with pleasure.” The photograph of a girl jumping over a puddle reflecting the lights of the street at night has become the most famous of the series.
Feeling safe, being able to depend on someone to protect you, to look after you, to be there when you need him or her. In many of his pictures, the photographer’s personality is immediately present; his photos show people big and small, strong and weak, young and old, interacting with each other with great care, respect and affection. A child clings to her father’s leg, unwilling to let him go; a Nigerian baby is safely tucked away in his sling while his mother is pounding grain; a father shows his little son how to feed the pigeons on Trafalgar Square. In the shade of a gasometer, a girl safely crosses a street in Nine Elms, London, holding on to her mother’s hand. Tender loving care can also mean being carefully washed, no matter whether it is a porcupine at London Zoo licking her young, or a Burmese boy having his head shaved to avoid head lice.
Suschitzky finds love, trust and warmth even in the dreariest of circumstances, as, for instance, in the Glasgow slums where a woman is feeding her baby. One of the reasons the Sardinian shepherd is pampering the smallest sheep in his herd may well be that it is going to provide him with wool and milk from which to make lovely cheese. Sometimes there is a little irony involved, as in the choice of a title such as Milk Bar p. 88 or in the photographer’s description of an encounter in Malaysia: “A lot of Chinese have settled there. In the small town of Kuala Krau I surprised these dog washers. Once I had shot the picture, I couldn’t help wondering whether the woman and her grandson had really bathed the dog simply for hygiene reasons.”
“I usually wait until an animal settles down where it feels comfortable and happy, instead of trying perform for me.” Suschitzky took his first photographs of animals before the War, when working on a series of zoo films as an assistant cameraman. The keepers would cut holes into the wire fencing and accompany him into the enclosures. Things did not always go smoothly: “I had to grab the camera and run for it when a kangaroo attacked me at Whipsnade, and I only just made the fence. But on the whole, the kind of animal photography which I do is fairly peaceful work.”
The great appeal of these pictures – they were published in magazines, such as Animal and Zoo Magazine or Illustrated, and later as books and series of postcards – is due to the fact that his photographs are animal portraits, rather than zoological specimen pictures showing four legs and a tail. For Suschitzky, Guy, the star of London Zoo, is not just a gorilla; he turns the ape’s feral features into an impressive character study.
First published in 1956, the volume Kingdom of the Beasts, for which Julian Huxley, a former Secretary of the Royal Zoological Society, wrote the text, was translated into several languages. “I’ve kept up my interest in animal photography ever since and wherever I have travelled on my documentary film work I have taken stills of animals. I’ve been to zoos in India,Australia,America, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Far East, Middle Europe, and whenever I could spare a day or two I would stay on to photograph animals.”
Waiting for patrons to find their way behind the curtain at Hampstead Heath Fair, waiting for the laundry to dry on the clothesline, waiting for the San Francisco cable car to change direction, for the bus to Brighton to arrive and take the travellers to the seaside. In a bizarre scene at the waterfront, three peculiar figures are waiting, well wrapped, to be unwrapped. After a long winter, the blossoms of an almond tree display all their glory. Sometimes, time even seems to stand still, be it in a sculpture garden, in the studio or on a porch; Suschitzky depicts the female torso, the nude, the Thai grandmother, as contemplative still lifes dipped into mysterious light.
Waiting also means being left to one’s own devices. A little girl stands her ground amid disinterested adults, the Sardinian shepherd watches over his territory with similar resolve, and an actor concentrates on a difficult scene: “The film The Chain had a good story written by Jack Rosenthal, a good director, Jack Gold, and a good cinematographer. The story was about a series of people moving into each others’ houses, forming a chain. The leading part in the film, played by the great actor Leo McKern, had started life in a poor area of London. Now he is rich, but feels that he is near the end of his life. He leaves his splendid house to go back where he grew up. That place was shown at the beginning of the film.”
More than any other type of work, industrial production leaves its indelible mark on people and their environment.With the industrial film, documentary filmmaking developed an independent, truly British, genre, which had its heyday in the 1930s. Suschitzky was among the cofounders of the Documentary Technicians Alliance (DATA), which produced MINING REVIEW, a monthly newsreel cine-magazine for Britain’s coalmining communities. On show in 300 cinemas throughout the country, these cine-magazines dealt with new technical developments in coalmining, the miners and their families, their social environment, their clubs
In his photographs from this period, Suschitzky not only documents work in a Welsh steelworks, the Newcastle shipyards, in Scottish coalmines or on the enormous coal barges in central London, but also the social environment of an industrial culture no longer extant in this form p. 122/123 today; a culture characterised by a strong sense of community spirit, displayed, in ways both big and small, in the tightly crammed rows of houses joined together like hooks and eyes. Steam locomotives, too, have long since disappeared from the British countryside. This unusual picture p. 113 was taken in Scotland in 1943. “I was not running in front of the moving train. The engine pushed a flat, open carriage, called a bogie, in front of it.We had a tripod with a large camera on it for filming Scottish landscape for future back-projection. Of course, I had my stills camera with me. Looking back at the engine, I noticed the engine driver watching us and the smoke almost hiding the sun.”
Suschitzky is interested in the face, eyes, nose and lips of the person he photographs, and perhaps in the occasional hand holding a cigarette or a child’s small fingers disappearing into a little mouth, as if forever. He does not distinguish between the famous and the unnamed. The furrowed face of an old woman wearing a headscarf displays the same poise as the perfectly lit portrait of Hilde Spiel, a lock of hair rakishly combed across her face. Living in London with her then husband, Peter de Mendelssohn, and daughter in the late 1930s, the Austrian writer and her family became close friends of the photographer.
Suschitzky shows British leading man Michael Caine, an expert in displaying his face, in profile, taking an intense drag from his cigarette during the filming of Get Carter. Mike Hodges’ film is now a modern classic, something that can hardly be said of Sands of Beersheba: “I worked on a film in Israel for an American, who wanted his wife to be a film star. The film never saw a cinema, I believe. In Jaffa I saw a group of Bedouins. They permitted me to take pictures of their wonderful faces.”While these embody a century-old history and culture, the carefree face of the young Israeli production assistant clearly stands for the spirit of optimism characteristic of the country’s new generation. Often, those portrayed return the photographer’s gaze, be it renowned British actress Virginia McKenna (“the most beautiful woman I had ever seen”), the lady in Trinidad, who still looks a little sceptical after Suschitzky won her trust by having tea with her, or Guy, the gorilla.
By the Water
All the cities Suschitzky has ever lived in have been by the water, Vienna on the Danube, Amsterdam on the Amstel River, London on the Thames; he has been living here for more than fourty years, in Maida Vale, with a view of the canal of Little Venice. In the Dutch capital, it is the reflexes and abstract reflections in the water of Prinsengracht that fascinate him. In India he photographs people wading through a dried-up riverbed underneath a bridge, in the desert a camel working a bucket wheel, toiling to pump up the precious resource.
For the faithful in Benares, bathing in the Ganges is as natural a thing as mass being celebrated in Notre Dame de Paris. Like the finger of God, the French cathedral’s tower, which Suschitzky first climbed in 1939, rises into the sky: “Very many years later I went to an exhibition of photographs by Henri Cartier- Bresson and saw an identical view of the Seine taken from the same spot. I had taken mine years earlier, and Henri’s picture lacked the barge on the river.” Sometimes the water comes unexpectedly, from above. A view down from one of the medieval towers of San Gimignano shows tourists taking shelter from a sudden deluge in an otherwise usually sunny Tuscany. A resident of London Zoo, on the other hand, thirsts for nothing but the jet of fresh water splashing into the basin after it was emptied for cleaning.
Perhaps Suschitzky likes photographing children because of the close relationship he enjoyed with his elder sister Edith and because of the strong bonds that tie him to his “offspring,” as he affectionately calls his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all of whom take a keen interest in his life and vice versa. In 1946, his son Peter became the protagonist of a book of his own, That Baby – The story of Peter and his new brother, in addition he regularly photographed for children’s books, including The Flying Poodle and Brendan of Ireland.“
Perhaps it is no accident, that I have done much photography of children and animals. One cannot arrange either of them to any large extent. One has to wait with patience for the right moment. Children and animals have the further advantage, that they do not complain about the results.” The same attention is lavished on the children playing in London’s East End, so to speak on his door step, as on those he meets while filming all over the world. In India he encounters a group of little allies; while shooting Geoffrey Jones’ short film Trinidad and Tobago, he makes the acquaintance of two very unlike siblings; in Thailand, while filming an NBC documentary on Southeast Asia, he comes across two girls so engrossed in eating their noodles that they fail to even notice the photographer. Suschitzky bumps into the two boys in Burma, where he worked on a film called People Like Maria, directed by Harry Watt. The film showed the work of WHO in South America, Nigeria and Burma. “I met these two boys in a small village. The little one may have been afraid of me. Perhaps he had never seen a European before.”
One of Suschitzky’s first photographs was taken in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1934. “I was fascinated by the lively atmosphere of the place. Markets selling everything under the sun, amusing barkers attracting crowds, lots of children everywhere. There were 70,000 Jews in Amsterdam before the War, but only 10,000 survived.”
In the Blink of an Eye
“He came, he saw, he snapped …” was one among the many witty titles Wolf Suschitzky suggested for this book. If so offhand a motto does little justice to the quality of his work, it perfectly describes the photographer’s approach of capturing the right moment. “I’m one of those photographers who like to wait for an opportunity for a picture to present itself, rather than create it by careful posing. I much prefer my subject to take up a favourable position of its own accord instead of having to coax it into position. Remember, the first rule of photography is patience. If you wait for the right expression or the right position it will come. It is far less likely to come if you try to force it.”
Such perfect opportunities also arise when the photographer and his subjects meet eye to eye. Suschitzky’s subjects return the photographer’s gaze: the Bedouin bride, the girl at the window, the man behind the picket fence. Even the perfect pose the painter Nikos Ghikas adopts conveys immediacy and spontaneity, as well as confidence and aplomb. “Nikos Hadjikyriakos- Ghikas is a well known artist in Greece. At the end of filming a short story on the island of Skiathos, I encountered John Craxton, the painter, who was just about to go to the island of Hydra to visit his painter friend. He asked me to come along. Ghikas, at the time, had a house with his studio on a high hill on Hydra. I thought his paintings most interesting. Some weeks later I heard that Ghikas’ house had burnt down. There was no water, so high up, to put out the fire. The entire painting collection there was lost.” St Mark’s Square in Venice, with pigeons flying, forms the backdrop to a memorable moment, as well as to an ironic duplication, with the photographer photographing another photographer snapping pictures of tourists.
Light and Shadow
Black and white. Dark and bright. Light and shadow. Reflections on the water, the streets and the sidewalks of Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht, a picture taken from Suschitzky’s flat after a rain shower; the Thames embankments in snow on a sunny winter’s day, with the Houses of Parliament visible in the distance; the sun setting in the nets of the fishing boats of Camara de Lobos; marks that seem to have virtually been burnt into the rock of the Acropolis; light and shade transforming a street into the light and dark squares of a chessboard; the view from the bedroom of a pub onto the newly paved main street of Oldham near Manchester. “I liked the trace of tramlines which had been removed. The light was just right and the only man about was in the right place.”
The photograph of Aldous Huxley with his eyes closed is Suschitzky’s favourite picture of the writer: “It conveys some of the fact that he had suffered most of his life with eye trouble. He went to live in California, where the light was brighter.” The picture was taken in Aldous’ brother Julian Huxley’s house. It was Julian Huxley, too, who told Suschitzky that Guy, the gorilla, was the most impressive animal he had ever encountered. “Guy became a celebrity and was a great favourite with the public. There still is a life-size statute of him at London Zoo. Guy was popular because of his dignity and intelligence. I think the best picture I got was this one where the shadows of the bars fell over his face. It brings home the frightful fate of such an animal being kept in a small cage (in those days), a prisoner behind bars.”
It is the small pleasures that count in life. India’s prime minister Nehru is having a cigarette during a short break from an interview in the garden of the presidential villa. Actor Milo O’Shea daydreams in a scene of the film Ulysses. Rehearsing a new part can also be fun, as long as – like actress Deborah Kerr – you can relax on a meadow while reading the script. The audience at the cricket pitch even puts up with the glaring sun to see the game from up close. Others prefer to keep their distance at the exclusive sporting club, as do the two ducks that seem to watch the game from the referee’s vantage point.
What parties and revelries need is music, good food, an exuberant atmosphere, joyful dancing and high spirits. Keeping up the good spirit is what Gerd and Agnes Arntz managed to do, despite all the adversities of exile: “Gerd was an artist, working mainly in black and white lino or woodcuts, but he painted in oil too. His day-job was for the Institute of Pictorial Statistics that Otto Neurath had started in Vienna for the Town Hall. It was he who designed the isotypes – one man representing 10,000, ten men 100,000, and so on. I met Gerd in Vienna in 1932 or ’33. Later, when Austro-fascism reared its ugly head, the Institute and Gerd moved to The Hague.When I had to leave Austria, I spent a year in Holland. I visited Gerd and Agnes frequently, and we became good friends. After I had moved to England, I still visited them as often as I could. Our friendship continued until Gerd’s death in 1988. The photograph was taken on the beach of Scheveningen.”
War, Peace and Democracy
Suschitzky has never been one to make brash political statements; his comments have always been subtle, with a keen eye for the documentation of historical events. If the picture of St Paul’s Cathedral taken through the window frame of a bombed-out building already seems exemplary of the damage of war, it is the “reverse shot” that reveals the full extent of the destruction wrought by German air raids. “I had climbed to the top of St Paul’s to film the devastation. You can see a large part of the City of London, or what was left of it. In the distance you can see the Monument, Tower Bridge, and Cannon Street Station. The picture can tell generations born since what London went through.”On VE Day, Suschitzky photographed people celebrating the end of the War, a few years later a march of peace activists on Trafalgar Square. “Bertrand Russell had formed the Committee of Hundred with writers, scientists, artists and other prominent people advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are still with us, and more and more countries have acquired them, threatening all life on earth.”