Meeting with the curator – Peter Schreiner: AULA, Modrzewskiego 12 – AUTHORS’ MARATHON, 10th October (Sunday) at 1.30. p.m.
venue available for the disabled
Wolfgang Suschitzky was born in Vienna in 1912 and trained as a photographer at Vienna’s Höhere Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt (Graphic Arts College). With the rise of the totalitarian Austrofascist regime in 1934, Suschitzky left Austria, travelling initially to the Netherlands and, a year later, to London. There he worked for magazines such as Picture Post, Illustrated and Lilliput before becoming associated with the British documentary film movement. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was officially classified as an “enemy alien” and initially banned from seeking gainful employment. By 1942 he was once again working as a cameraman and, in 1944, helped co-found the DATA film co–operative.
In the post-war period, Wolf Suschitzky began shooting more and more short films and feature films. An extensive photographic oeuvre also gradually emerged alongside his cinematic work, showcasing Wolf Suschitzky as a detached, yet never indifferent observer of people’s lives and their social circumstances.
Wolf Suschitzky died in London in 2016 aged 104. In 2018 FOTOHOF archiv was entrusted with curating his estate as a permanent loan, making it accessible to the public at large.
Some Notes on Wolf Suschitzky
Wolf Suschitzky came from a Jewish and, above all, social democratic family. Around the turn of the last century, his father Wilhelm opened the first leftist bookshop in Vienna. In association with his publishing company Anzengruber–Verlag, he sold books on controversial topics such as social and sexual reforms, free thinking and gender issues. Addressing and exploring a progressive social discourse and socialism per se certainly proved a formative experience for Wolf Suschitzky growing up. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian “Austrofascist” regime, Wolf Suschitzky felt there was no future for him in Austria. In 1934 he travelled to the Netherlands and, a year later, went into exile in Britain.
In London, Wolf Suschitzky soon devoted himself to a familiar subject matter while working for various illustrated magazines. On Charing Cross Road, he photographs the hustle and bustle of a street famous for its booksellers. The topic itself is remarkable. Firstly, it represents a link to Wolf’s own past, now sidelined by exile – and no doubt painfully so. Secondly, perhaps his father’s own fate somehow guided Wolf’s gaze once again. For Wilhelm Suschitzky took his own life in 1934.
But the public at large that Wolf Suschitzky encountered on Charing Cross Road did not consist solely of bibliophiles. Indeed, in the 1930s, Charing Cross Road was a hub not just of London’s book market. It was the street workers, shoe-shiners, knife sharpeners, milkmen and dustmen that caught the young photographer’s main attention. Later he will state: “The photo document is the reflection of the contemporary scene and represents in its best form subtle photographic comment on social conditions, rather than direct social propaganda”.
From that point of view it seems logical that the restrained naturalism of his photographs, which are not without a certain pathos, should prove a perfect fit for the aesthetic concept of the British documentary film movement. Indeed, they seem able to fulfil precisely the task that the visionaries of the movement had assigned to the documentary genre as a poetic art form.
The fact that, from 1937/38, Wolf Suschitzky began to work more and more as a cameraman, thereby giving rise to a cinematic body of work alongside his photographic oeuvre, certainly qualifies as a peculiarity in this context. This is highly significant for the background to most of his photographs. At first, there was a preponderance of classical photographic commissions, understandably so.
They included entire series of photographs, taken before and during the war, on the construction of Waterloo Bridge (1939), the wartime deployment of ‘Women Ferry Pilots’ (1939/40) and the ‘Women’s Land Army’ (1939) for magazines such as Illustrated.
Quite similar seems the photograph of a man lighting his pipe in a qualm of smoke in 1942. It was, however, taken during the shooting of the film series Workers & War Front (1942/43) and is therefore of a different documentary quality. Like this distinct image, many of Wolf Suschitzky’s works are hard to ascribe to a particular photographic genre. On the one hand, they represent vivid records that provide an account of what are now historical contexts, of traditional crafts and of heavy industrial production, but above all of social relationships within a restless world. On the other, they themselves are the products of a particular context of production.
The fact that they were taken either on the periphery or at the very heart of (documentary) film sets – at a steel mill, say, or a coal mine – is also an essential characteristic that contributes to Wolf Suschitzky’s distinctive blend of naturalistic and staged moments. But perhaps one should not be too strict in categorising the photographs in Wolf Suschitzky’s estate according to where and when they were originally produced. Both aesthetically and in terms of their author’s perspective, they all testify to the same attitude; an attitude most likely rooted not least in a lifelong and unwavering interest in social conditions.