zaterdag 15 oktober 2016
Views & Reviews Photographer and cinematographer who captured 30s London Wolfgang Suschitzky Photography
London: Photography. 12mo. Oblong. 24 p. Incl. technical data. Illustrated with photographs.
Published on 12 October 2016
Written by Tom Seymour
All images © Wolfgang Suschitzky, courtesy The Photographer's Gallery
The iconic Austrian photographer and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, a former contributor to The British Journal of Photography, has died at the age of 104. BJP remembers his lifelong contribution to photography.
Born in Vienna in 1912, Suschitzky was the son of Wilhelm and Adele, a secular, Jewish couple who ran a small bookshop in Vienna that included titles which warranted them, at that place and time, the title of ‘radicals’.
And so, in the 1930s, after his father had committed suicide as the consequences of Nazism became clear, so Wolfgang, a young man in his twenties, sought refuge in the UK.
Suschitzky is best known for his his work, as cinematographer, on Mike Hodges’ 1971 film Get Carter, with Michael Caine as the macho and psychotic London gangster.
It’s remembered as a thriller, a precursor to the many violent gangster films that are now such a staple of British cinema.
But Get Carter, shot with Suschitzky’s ascetic, moral eye, has most value as a piece of social realism, a cinéma verité-esque document of the realities of Newcastle in the 1970s. The Tyneside here isn’t one of chain restaurants and high street clothing shops, hen parties and stag-dos.
Instead, the film orientates – and indeed embeds – its action, and its players, into the people of the city – the faces of the old men who have spent a life working the mines or harbour-side, now sat in the pubs or hiding in the betting shops, the youngsters on the street corners or the dancehalls.
Suschitzky’s career in photography, of course, stretched far behind that. He first owned a photography studio in Amsterdam, his first destination after Vienna.
But, after his marriage to his first wife started to collapse, he left Holland for the UK.
Wolfgang created atmospheric photographs of London shortly after his arrival in the 1930s. Charing Cross Road, the centre of London’s bookselling trade, became an early fascination – a hark back, maybe, to his parent’s bookshop, such an integral place in his childhood. Later, he began to collaborate with artist Paul Rotha, with whom he developed his career in motion pictures.
Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery, who displayed an exhibition of Suschitzky’s work in the London gallery in January this year, said of the late photographer: “Tempering the social conscience of a documentarian with the eye of a German expressionist, Suschitzky created classic works that are both an invaluable documentary of the long vanished time but also brilliantly captured.”
Reviewing the exhibition, Gaby Wood of The Telegraph said: “His images of London, taken with the keen eye and gentle humility of a recent immigrant, are so evocative you feel they must be stills from films made before the war, mysteriously replayed in your mind’s eye.”
He retired in 1987, but his work continued to be exhibited.
In 2007, he was awarded Austria’s gold merit medal lifetime achievement award. The place from which he fled finally realised what a talent they lost.
See more of his work at The Photographer’s Gallery.
Wolfgang Suschitzky obituary
Customers at a Lyons Corner House in London in 1941, photographed by Wolfgang Suschitzky. Photograph: SYNEMA - Society for Film & Media
Friday 7 October 2016 18.21 BST Last modified on Monday 10 October 2016 23.46 BST
Although born in Vienna, the photographer and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who has died aged 104, forged his career in the UK where, as a Jew and a socialist, he took refuge in the 1930s. His best-known photographs remain those taken at dawn on Charing Cross Road in London at that time. The steam rising from the asphalt as cloth-capped workers lay the road surface ahead of the steamroller, and the whitish glow of milk bottles on a float, are eerie period essays in black and white, a paean to the dignity of labour.
Suschitzky was the cinematographer for Get Carter (1971), shot on location in north-east England, starring Michael Caine. His early cinematic work – in collaboration with the director Paul Rotha – was in a documentary style similar to that of his stills, with titles such as Children of the City (1944), a dramatised study of deprived children in Dundee, the Bafta-winning The World Is Rich (1948), a hard-hitting documentary that looked at food distribution following the second world war, and No Resting Place (1951), among the first British feature films shot entirely on location. He also worked on Jack Clayton’s Oscar-winning short The Bespoke Overcoat (1955).
Suschitzky’s photography has enjoyed something of a renaissance this century, with his inclusion in a number of group shows, not least Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 at Tate Britain in 2012. On his centenary in the same year, he received a Bafta special award for his cinematography.
Suschitzky’s father, Wilhelm, and mother, Adele (nee Bauer), were secular Jews who owned a radical bookshop in Vienna. Wilhelm, a noted free-thinker, killed himself during the rise of nazism. Wolfgang’s elder sister, Edith (later Tudor-Hart), was also a photographer, and a great influence on her brother.
An image by Wolfgang Suschitzky of workers applying asphalt to the surface of Charing Cross Road, London, in the 1930s
Suschitzky left Vienna, and the Austrofascist regime that seized power in 1934, for Amsterdam, where he met and married Helena “Puck” Voûte, with whom he opened a photography studio. By 1935 the marriage was ailing and he left for London. There, he met Rotha and they began to work together. Suschitzky was committed to photographing his adopted homeland and to helping others escape from his former one, including two cousins who, having been held at Dachau, were eventually released, only to be interned on the Isle of Man.
Despite graduating in photography from the Höhere Graphische Bundes-Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (School of Design and Graphic Arts) in Vienna, Suschitzky’s first passion was zoology, and he found lifelong pleasure in photographing animals. His animal portraits have a particularly Bauhaus imprint, his zebras a study in geometry.
In 1940 he held his first exhibition – of animal pictures – in London and published his first book, the “how to” guide Photographing Children, which was followed by Photographing Animals a year later. “It always pays to make only slow movements when you take pictures of animals,” he explained. “I never carry food when I walk through the zoo. The animals soon smell whether you have anything in your pocket. As far as possible I avoid zoo backgrounds. They either look depressing or incongruous.” He was characteristically modest: “Any competent photographer can take good animal pictures; there is no particular technical knowledge required … I have the greatest respect for the nature photographer and for those who take pictures of animals for scientific records.”
His childhood ambition had been to become a zoologist and in 1956 he was delighted to supply the photographs for the book The Kingdom of the Beasts by Julian Huxley, whose scientific views closely corresponded to his own.
Always believing that man was but one remove from animals, and that the child is father to the man, Suschitzky specialised in child portraits that broke with the studio stereotype. He preferred to photograph in natural light, if possible out of doors, and the Photography Year Books printed annually in the 1950s and 60s frequently included his images of children engrossed in building sandcastles and skiing down mountain slopes, while the World Exhibition of Photography used others in the shows What Is Man? (1964) and Woman (1968).
Suschitzky’s work as a freelance cameraman became increasingly heterogeneous, with films as diverse as Ulysses (1967), Ring of Bright Water (1969) and Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970); and those on the artists Poussin (1968) and Claude Lorrain (1970). He was always realistic that it was the film work that paid the bills to support a growing family – he had three children, born to his second wife, Ilona (nee Donat). This marriage ended in divorce. His third marriage, to Beatrice Cunningham, ended with her death in 1989.
Michael Caine, left, and Ian Hendry in Get Carter, 1971, for which Wolfgang Suschitzky was the cinematographer. Photograph: Allstar/METRO
Suschitzky became increasingly interested in themes prompted by Edward Steichen’s international The Family of Man exhibition in 1955, which set out to explore how “people are different the world over, and everywhere the same”. His work for Geographical magazine extended into series on the daily lives of people in Burma, Thailand, Yemen, Ethiopia and India.
By the 1980s, Suschitzky was also working in television commercials and was the cinematographer for the children’s series Worzel Gummidge (1980-81). In the same decade he began to receive somewhat belated recognition for his photography, in the Art in Exile exhibition in the UK (a touring show that originated in Berlin) and exhibitions in London at the Photographers’ Gallery, Camden Arts Centre and Zelda Cheatle Gallery. The work on display at the last of these presented images of both his abandoned and his acquired homelands, as seen in Suschitzky’s book Charing Cross Road in the 1930s (1989).
More recent publications include the retrospective Wolf Suschitzky Photos (2006, introduced by the Magnum photographer Erich Lessing), and Wolf Suschitzky Films (with a tribute by the Get Carter director, Mike Hodges), in 2010. Seven Decades of Photography (for which I wrote an introduction) appeared in 2014. In the same year he was granted an honorary doctorate at the University of Brighton.
Wolfgang Suschitzky’s eerie period essays in black and white are a paean to the dignity of labour. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
Earlier this year he shared a major exhibition with Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert, fellow photographers of his heritage and generation, at the Ben Uri Gallery in north London. Called Unseen, it and the accompanying book drew further on “overlooked” images of London, Paris and New York by the three photographers, who all attended the launch.
Suschitzky believed that great photography is “a combination of the right choice of detail, the elimination of all that is inessential and the right moment that makes the picture”. He demystified his technique still further, by adding: “I was always quite content to be a good craftsman.” His cinematographer son, Peter, spoke of Suschitzky’s “patient and discreetly watchful eye, never seeking to impose his own views but always ready to give technical advice, and reluctant to help in decisions involving personal taste”.
Celebrations for his centenary included a party at the Camden Arts Centre and a reception at the Photographers’ Gallery where his work was on show in the print room. When I invited him to lunch in an Austrian cafe in London, a neat queue formed to obtain his signature. With his amused eye, mild manner, gentle warmth and large heart, he was always the gallant gentleman. He signed, then shook the men’s, and kissed the ladies’, hands.
Suschitzky is survived by his partner, Heather Anthony, his children, Peter, Julia and Misha, his five granddaughters, four grandsons and seven great-grandchildren.
• Wolfgang Suschitzky, photographer and cinematographer, born 29 August 1912; died 7 October 2016
This article was amended on 10 October 2016 to include mention of Wolfgang Suschitzky’s third wife, Beatrice Cunningham, and to correct the spelling of his first wife’s name. In addition, the relatives that he helped free from Dachau were his cousins, not his brothers, as previously stated.