Review: Unseen London, Paris, New York @ Ben Uri Gallery
Neil Libbert, New York Subway Girl, New York, 1960
London, Paris, New York: the three global cities of the world are a photographer’s playground from the architecture to the people. Unseen is a collection of images taken by pioneering 20th century photographers, Wolfgang Suschitzky, Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert during the 1930s-60s.
London, Paris and New York have been artistically recycled over and over through art, film and advertising, so it’s hard to imagine you’re seeing anything extraordinary in these photographs. However the artistic approaches of Suschitzky, Bohm, and Libbert are motivated by the fact they were Jewish immigrants seeing the city for the first time, often shooting the habitual routines of city dwellers.
The most striking element of the exhibition is the social division that is often presented in the images, from Libbert’s photographs of young Harlem boys to Suschitzky’s series of craftsmen on the Charing Cross Road. The responses are all very personal.
Wolfgang Suschitzky, Charing Cross Road, London 1936
The lower ground floor of the exhibition separates into three sections – the yellow-walled New York featuring Libbert’s work, the romantic blue-walled Paris by Bohm, and the bleak grey-walled London of Suschitzky. Curated by Katy Barron, the largely unseen images are social postcards of the times capturing the political tension and natural allures of the city.
Libbert’s New York often integrated the titanic structures of the city with intimate and unstudied photographs of local Jewish and minority communities. Libbert was aware of new approaches to documentary photography; one of his most arresting images of the Harlem Race Riots in 1964 shows a young black boy with a replica gun confronting a large white policeman. The skewed composition creates a landmark and influential image that lies between reportage and New Documentary.
Neil Libbert, Harlem Race Riots, New York, 1964
On the contrary, Bohm’s series on Paris is far more subdued and romantic. During her early life Bohm was forced to flee the Nazis more than once, and as a result her photographs capture fleeting and misty moments. Bohm explains: “The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains some of the special magic, which I have looked for and found. I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.”
Suschitzky’s images of London are exceptionally accurate – it’s not often you can look at a photograph of a rain-soaked pavement and instantly tell it’s English rain. Suschitzky remained in London throughout the war and many of his images focus on the individual and the social disparity that existed within the capital. His images capture a dreary and lugubrious atmosphere and strangely it still remains a defining characteristic of London in the rain.
Unseen presents both the beauty and ugliness of the world cities, and while it seems like we’ve seen these images all too often it’s important to remember they are the originals.
We gave it 3 / 5 mangos.
Unseen London, Paris, New York is showing at Ben Uri until August 28, 2016.
For more details about the gallery see below:
Ben Uri Gallery & Museum
108a Boundary Road
Telephone: 020 7604 3991
Gallery Opening Times: Monday, 1pm – 5.30pm, Tues-Fri, 10am – 5.30pm, Sat-Sun, 11am – 5pm