Wolf Suschitzky was born the year that the Titanic was launched and is still taking photographs 102 years later. He is without question one of the greatest documentary photographers of his generation having produced inspirational black and white street photographs for decades. His work has now been released in a new book ‘Seven Decades of Photography’ (edited by Michael Omasta and Brigitte Mayr) which contains many previously unpublished photographs. I have not reproduced any of those here – for that you will need to buy the book.
Suschitzky’s photography is both instantly recognisable and hard to define. He seems to have a peculiar talent for capturing a moment in history as well as creating a sense of mystery which raises more questions than it answers. His use of the anonymous figure across his photographs adds scale, context and stimulates our intellectual curiosity. Who were these people and what became of them? Where are they going? What was in their minds? Photographs such as the one of Amsterdam below assault the senses on so many levels. It goes without saying that it is technically masterful – wonderful composition, separate figures that do not overlap, a sense of movement, converging lines of cobbles that draw the eye into the photo. It makes you want to step through the image into old Amsterdam to experience if for yourself. That is the wonder of Suschitzky’s art – he connects you immediately to the subject and explores human interactions from a humanistic and compassionate perspective.
Suschitzky has been an inspiration for much of my black and white photography going back thirty years and it was a rare privilege to meet him briefly at the launch of this new book – although I did have some trepidation when it came to taking his photograph. Not one you would want to mess up!
The indistinct image of a milkman in the photo below is very typical of his earlier work and it illustrates nicely how difficult this type of photography is to get right. The image includes a hint of movement due to a longer shutter speed but not so much that the meaning is lost. The milkman is cast into anonymity by silhouetting but is clearly visible against the background due to Suschitzky using the light coloured van and the reflected light on the street to create contrast between subject and ground. The rule of thirds abounds within this photo and the timing is perfect. Any later and the subject would have been lost against the lamppost. There is so much that could have gone wrong with this shot but photography is all about patience and what comes through in this new book is that Suschitzky is a master of waiting, only pressing the shutter when the scene develops into that sweet point of maximum impact.
The book opens with a personal reminiscence by Amanda Hopkinson followed by a useful analysis of Suschitzky’s photographic style by Julia Winckler. Both sections help with understanding what it is that makes his photographs so good and highlight the dynamic between the commissioned works and his spontaneous photography that makes this collection such a rich mixture.
The son of a social democrat Suschitzky grew up in Vienna and although of Jewish background appears to have grown up outside of the constraints of religious orthodoxy before moving to London in 1934. I am sure this helped form the foundations for his humanistic approach to documenting the world which is a common thread that runs through all seven decades of photographs. It is not possible to properly document something unless you have empathy – it is the cornerstone of our humanity. It is self-evident from his work that Suschitzky has an empathetic approach to his subjects which is why the images have such an enduring ability to take us back in time.
Photographs such as the one above speak to the social inequality that was rife in London – the contrast between the well-to-do couple and the anonymous worker cleaning the shoes is stark and although at first glance you are drawn to the faces of the couple the eye is inexorably taken down to the man on his knees whose face cannot be seen. The theme of working people runs throughout his work and is illustrated beautifully in the selection of photographs chosen for this new book.
Overall I think this is a must have book for anyone who appreciates the timeless quality of black and white photography from the glorious days before digital. There is so much to learn from these images and the subject matter is very eclectic which made every turn of the page a delight of exploration.
The book is around 200 pages long with 170 photographs reproduced to a high quality and is available on general purchase from December 2014. It is a perfect Christmas present for those who love quality photography or anyone who has an interest in social history. A unique window into the mind of a master photographer and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
More information on Wolf Suschitzky’s work can be found here http://www.wolfsuschitzkyphotos.com
Please remember that all photographs in this review (apart from the first one) are copyright Wolf Suschitzky and should not be reproduced in any form or used elsewhere without his permission.
Book details below
SYNEMA, Society for Film and Media
A-1070 Vienna, Neubaugasse 36/1/1/1
Tel: (0)20 8747 1061
Wolf Suschitzky: Seven Decades of Photography
Editors: Michael Omasta, Brigitte Mayr
200 pages with 170 b/w-photographs, printed in high quality duotone
SYNEMA Publications (Vienna) 2014
Hardcover, 21 x 26,5 cm, Euro 35, £28.