I had the privilege of meeting the late Wolf Suschitzky three times – once a random encounter at the Museum of London, once at a book signing and then more recently when he agreed to a portrait session at his home in Maida Vale. He came across as a kind, intelligent and empathetic gentleman – a product of his generation.
He was born the year that the Titanic was launched and his career stretched across the golden age of film photography. He is a much underrated photographer whose work has not quite had the acclaim that it probably deserves.
When we discussed his earlier work it became clear that a significant influence was his sister, Edith Tudor-Hart, who studied at the Bauhaus and used photography as a way to highlight social inequality. She was also a Soviet agent but that is another story. Her most famous photograph ‘bakery window’ was in a prominent place on his wall.
Wolf also studied at the Bauhaus but when I asked him about this he didn’t seem to think it had any influence at all on his photographic style. He summed up by saying that all they taught him was how to make a good print and that is evident from his work.
Suschitzky is probably best known for his Charing Cross series – a range of photographs taken around Charing Cross in the 1930s which includes some immediately recognisable images such as the one of Foyles below. However he took a wide range of photographs including portraits, animals, still life, street photography and urban landscapes.
He took this photograph speculatively and then tried to sell it to Foyles. They weren’t interested which pretty much sums up people’s view of the Charing Cross series at the time – it is an evocative series that has become exceptional due to the passage of time and now contains some images that are instantly recognisable.
Shoe shine is one of those photographs – a very hard shot to get at the best of times. Wolf told me that the man in the photograph was a Soho gangster and was not best pleased at Wolf’s temerity in photographing him without permission. His ‘moll’ however seemed quite pleased with the attention and posed for the shot.
What struck me when I met him was just how much Suschitzky remembered about the context of each of his photographs. I could see them triggering memories for him as we spoke and when he tried out my Contax G2 he instantly switched back into photographer mode.
Looking at the range of his work it is the Charing Cross photographs that tend to get most attention. However it is some of his lesser-known images that reveal his real technical skills. In particular his photographs of Amsterdam and Oldham. Taken ten years apart the tonal range in these images show just how good he was both as a photographer and in the darkroom. Taken on film and without any opportunity to preview the shot it is difficult for anyone born into the age of digital photography to appreciate just how hard it is to take photographs like this using film.
He moved into portrait photography and took a range of portraits of famous people including H.G Wells. The reason for the shift into portraiture was simple – as a struggling young photographer he had to make ends meet and portraits offered a way to pay the bills.
I used this photograph of H.G Wells in 1939 as the basis of one of my photos of Wolf in 2016 and used film which seemed to be the right thing to do.
Moving on from photography to cinematography was not an easy transition for Suschitzky – he told me that the most difficult aspect of it was ensuring he kept the contrast the same when switching between the scenes. Again film and no preview. A lot has been written about his cinematography so I won’t expand on that here. Suffice it to say that some of it was masterful.
He was the cinematographer for the Bespoke Overcoat in 1956 which won an Oscar for the best short film. Of all of the films he worked on I think this best illustrates his craft – it is like a series of noir still photographs woven into a wonderfully atmospheric film. It was played in full at the launch of his book, Seven Decades of Photography, at the Austrian Cultural Forum a couple of years ago and is well worth watching if you have not seen it.
When I asked him what his best photograph was he pointed to the photograph of Guy the Gorilla which was hanging on his wall. I have to agree as it is a poignant and impactful image captured by poking the camera through the bars of the cage – something that would be impossible in these days of health and safety.
Sadly Wolf Suschitzky passed away in October. He had a long life and has left a wonderful legacy. If you are a young photographer looking for inspiration then look no further. Photograph the ordinary things in life – in a few decades time may make them extraordinary.