Women refugee photographers who changed how post-war Britain saw itself
These images served to signal that there was also a cultural dimension to the hopes for post-war renewal.
The latest Four Corners exhibition, 'Another Eye', which was planning to run until 2 May, celebrates the lives and work of the two dozen women photographers who sought refuge in Britain from Nazi Europe after 1933. (See below for the latest information on the exhibition). The scope of the exhibition is broad, and tells a series of interlocking stories. The historical backcloth is how Germany and Austria were at the forefront of photography in the 1920s and 1930s, and how photographs were used for mass communication. Alongside this the exhibition tells the stories of forced exile and how these highly skilled women photographers escaped and re-established themselves in Britain. The exhibition also shows the very diverse range of work that the women were involved in once in Britain – portraits, fashion, social documentary, book illustrations, educational photographs of artworks and adverts.
One intriguing aspect of the impact made that by these women photographers was the way in which, as outsiders, they managed to capture features of British life, work and rituals, and through their photographs, showed Britain back to the British public in new and fresh ways.
The origins of this very British story begin elsewhere; mainly in Berlin and Vienna where the majority of the refugees came from. It was there, especially after the First World War, where photography developed rapidly, along with the opportunity for a career working in it. New portable cameras, such as the Leica, capable of “candid” and “street photography” since they could be used spontaneously and go close up to the subject, came onto the market in the mid-1920s. Training institutions such as the Bauhaus, the (women-only) Lette Verein in Berlin, and the Graphical Research and Teaching Institute in Vienna, all offered advanced photography courses and training. Meanwhile the illustrated press boomed as an industry, with a wide range of local and national magazines, together with illustrated pull-out sections in local and national daily newspapers. As well as very positive factors which were propelling German and Austrian photography forward, modernist perspectives that were being projected in architecture, design and the arts found their way to photography. These fresh approaches to making photographs, and experimenting with how they could be used, later made their way to Britain with the emigrés.
It was little surprise that middle-class young women, who had been given more civic rights in the post-war settlement and were entering the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, should chose photography as a career. Those women photographers forced into exile typically came from middle-class assimilated Jewish homes where they were often supported by their families in their career choices. Given their family heritage, when the Nazi regime came to power in Germany in 1933 and Austria in 1938, these highly trained women fled the persecution and some two dozen of them arrived in Britain.
Once in Britain the women photographers who had established careers in their country of origin, worked energetically to quickly re-establish themselves in what turned out to be their new home. A good example of this is the way in which Gerty Simon, a portraitist of some standing in Berlin, managed to mount two solo portrait exhibitions within two years of arriving in London, with celebrity sitters from the world of society, politics and the arts. The British press gave positive reviews and signalled that a new and fresh talent was on the scene. Portraits of rising stars in politics and the arts showed a boyish Aneurin Bevan in a relaxed pose, and an elegant Kenneth Clark, contemplative, standing in front of a beloved favourite painting.
Gerty Simon, a portraitist of some standing in Berlin, managed to mount two solo portrait exhibitions within two years of arriving in London, with celebrity sitters from the world of society, politics and the arts.
The arrival of the women photographers also coincided with the founding of two publications that were to have a big impact on the popular visual landscape of the country. Stefan Lorant, himself a Hungarian-Jewish refugee, was instrumental in setting up and establishing a style to these new magazines. The, first, in 1937, was the pocket-sized Lilliput which illustrated generally light-hearted and humorous articles with photographs that were there to entertain and distract. The second, Picture Post, was a different and more radical proposition with a large magazine format, full of photographs and photo-essays and articles that could be at once serious but accessible. Picture Post proved to be a publishing sensation, with weekly sales rising from over one million very soon after its launch in 1938 to a highpoint of nearly two million in 1943. As such a popular and accessible magazine was passed around households and workplaces and barrack rooms, the readership was of course much higher.
Picture Post proved to be a publishing sensation, with weekly sales rising from over one million very soon after its launch in 1938 to a highpoint of nearly two million in 1943.
During the years of Picture Post’s greatest success women refugee photographers were active contributors. Gerti Deutsch, a woman who had trained in Vienna, contributed over fifty photo stories to the magazine. Edith Tudor-Hart and Elisabeth Chat were two others of the group whose photographs illustrated pages and photo-essays in the magazine. But it was the choice of stories of hidden or otherwise neglected corners of British life, often away from the capital, and then how those stories were handled, that had the most impact.
Consider, for example, the assignment Gerti Deutsch undertook in 1939 – A Day in the Life of a Cambridge Undergraduate. The photo-essay shows the sumptuous surrounding and the young men in their gowns at lectures and in the ritual of dining. It is a snapshot of an elite British institution that was being shown to the wider public, who we can imagine had little idea of what it was like there – a hidden world. What is also telling is that amongst the pictures of the young men and their surroundings is one portrait of a bed-maker, a woman, very authentically throwing her head back and laughing, while sitting and balancing a tea cup and saucer. It is notable that this affectionate photograph is of a woman servant, whose role would normally have been all but invisible, and who was brought to vibrant life in this story as a highly recognisable ordinary individual in the eye of the average magazine reader.
It was the choice of stories of hidden or otherwise neglected corners of British life, often away from the capital, and then how those stories were handled, that had the most impact.
After the war, stories of post-war reconstruction and renewal came to the fore. Edith Tudor-Hart illustrated an article about caring for children with disabilities in Aberdeen. Elisabeth Chat showed the beginning of the Peterlee New Town on the Durham coalfields. These disparate picture narratives were particularly exemplary, in that they pointed to a war-weary and austerity-burdened British the promise of a more active welfare state, one which might embody more humane care for the vulnerable and a better housing future.
In the sphere of portraiture, already mentioned, a new approach was introduced to the British scene – a more modern way of capturing and presenting likeness. The more traditional sepia-tinted portraits that sought to beautify and emphasise status and eminence were challenged by a bolder, uncluttered focus on the sitter, where adjustments to camera angles, poses and dramatized lighting, produced portraits that sought to highlight character and presence. Again, the women refugee photographers were at the forefront of leading this change, starting with Lucia Moholy in the 1930s and extended by Lotte Meitner-Graf. Her career that reached into the 1960s, and produced a large portfolio of portraits of leaders in the arts (especially music), science and public life, recorded the changing face of a more meritocratic post-war Britain.
In addition to those photographers who enjoyed public recognition through their work being published in mass circulation magazines or because of their portraiture of public figures, there were others with less celebrated careers that made an impact and contributed to the British visual landscape. Two photographers, Anneli Bunyard and Inge Ader, set up a studio together in North London during the war, and in addition to the staple of family portraits took photographs used in adverts for magazines such as Vogue and publicity portraits for the local theatre. Lisel Haas, who after being exiled lived and worked in Birmingham, also did theatrical work with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, photographing rising talents such as Derek Jacobi and Albert Finney. Erika Koch, based in London, worked regularly for The Diplomat magazine, while Elsbeth Juda produced fashion work that appeared in The Ambassador: The British Export Magazine.
In an era of print media, the impact went far beyond newspapers and magazines, with many of the photographers widely active in book production and design. Lucia Moholy’s One Hundred Years of Photography 1839-1939 published as part of the sixpenny Penguin series in 1939, was an immediate success, selling 40,000 copies. Lotte Meitner-Graf’s portraits of classical performers were used on the sleeves of best-selling records in the post-war decades, and Laelia Goehr’s photographs of musicians and conductors were collected together in a 1987 book Musicians in Camera. Together with much earlier Picture Post articles illustrated by photographs by Gerti Deutsch, which celebrated the first years of the Edinburgh Festival, these images served to signal that there was also a cultural dimension to the hopes for post-war renewal.
Taken collectively, their work can be seen as an important part of the process by which photography represented the evolution of a new Britain, reflecting 1930s inequality, war-time endeavour, and post-war recovery. Their imagery was not one-dimensional or instructive, but portrayed a rich patchwork of faces, places and events that helped create a visual backcloth against which the British experienced and understood their own country, and in so doing, transformed the nature of twentieth century British photography itself.
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See also the Four Corners exhibition catalogue here.
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