A World Observed

A World Observed is the first major retrospective of London- based photographer Dorothy Bohm, now widely recognised as one of the doyennes of British photography

Lisbon, Portugal, 1963. Photograph by Dorothy Bohm

Lisbon, Portugal, 1963. Photograph by Dorothy Bohm

Exhibition: 1940 – 2010: A World Observed: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm
Venue: Manchester Art Gallery
Running: Until 30 August

A World Observed is the first major retrospective of London-based photographer Dorothy Bohm, now widely recognised as one of the doyennes of British photography. Spanning six decades and several continents, the exhibition is both comprehensive and somewhat over-whelming, requiring a full afternoon’s attention for the vast array of photographs on display to be properly appreciated.

The exhibition starts with Bohm’s earliest work which, when viewed with the colour photographs from her later career, have a forgettable quality and lack a thorough grasp of manipulated lighting. The human figure in its natural setting is often cited as the primary focus of her earlier work, whilst her more recent photographs have become more painterly and abstract. But the purer, unmanipulated images don’t seem to speak of any truth or honesty. Bohm describes how she used lighting in order to bring out the sitter’s best features, resulting in clinical, highly glossy depictions of beautiful people, who seemingly don’t have a story.

Once one reaches the end of Bohm’s photos from Studio Alexander, however, it is obvious that the figures’ poses aren’t wholly contrived, and that the nurses and mothers who adorn her later images could easily tell an authentic and interesting tale. Her shots of brides in their wedding gowns are beautiful yet melancholic, pre-cursing the stunning snapshot ‘42nd Street, New York City’. The picture shows a young woman staring up into the empty eyes of a mannequin bride. The effect is wistful, eerie and disconcerting, displaying longing, unfulfilled expectation and an illusion of normality inherent in everyday society.

But Bohm is not just concerned with westernised institutions and traditions. Her photos of places display a more exploratory concern, chronicling decades of national images from across the world and demonstrating a fading beauty that Bohm herself admits to wanting to capture. Etched across the wall above the photographs of places is a Bohm philosophy, suggesting that her work aspires to bring forth a shared fundamentality found in all humans and places: “People everywhere live with the same joys, the same loves, terror, tragedies.” Bohm’s musings don’t always ring true, and sometimes the viewer begs to be left alone to view the work; but her insights provide a certain aesthetic appeal to the otherwise sparse and rather cold interior of the exhibition.

That is, until you step into her world of colour photographs. The definite highlight of the exhibition is the eclectic collection of polaroids which have to be more closely scrutinised in order to be fully enjoyed. With another adage plastered across the wall, “I like a sense of mystery in my photographs. Sometimes I want a picture to ask why and not be too easily deciphered and decoded, because our lives are often like that,” you finally sense with her later images that Bohm has achieved an ability to illustrate aspects of our everyday lives that we never knew we had missed.