It was with deep sorrow that I learned of the recent death of Wolfgang Suschitzky at the age of 104. Wolfgang was both a remarkable photographer and a highly accomplished and sought after “cameraman” (his own self-effacing words, but in fact a cinematographer) for both documentaries and narrative features.
It was my good fortune to know Wolf a little. We first met in 2000, when I asked specifically for him, Mike Hodges and Michael Caine to contribute an audio commentary to an upcoming Warner Bros. DVD release of the 1971 British crime movie Get Carter. The three had worked on the film as DP, director and star respectively. Wolf and Mike recorded their pieces at Pinewood and we celebrated after with Wolf’s partner Heather at Mirabelle on Curzon Street.
A week or two later Wolf kindly invited me to the opening of a show of his photography at a gallery in Ladbroke Grove. While there I bumped into my friend, Hannah Donat, who looked at me with bug-eyed surprise and asked “why are you at my grandad’s private view?” Small world; it turned out that Hannah was one of Wolf’s nine grandchildren!
When I am asked – as any photographer might – “who is your favourite photographer?” I always reply “Wolfgang Suschitzky.” The next two questions are usually “Who?” and “Why?” I then explain that, as much I passionately enjoy the work of countless other photographers it is – was – Wolf’s rare combination of compassion, versatility, creative skill, doggedness, wit and artistic longevity that won me over, both personally and in his brilliant work in the realms of still and moving image.
I have, since we first met, collected Wolf’s work. I once popped into the Photographers’ Gallery (the old address on Great Newport Street) with a recent bonus burning a hole in my pocket and asked to look at their current holding of Wolf’s prints. “You’re in luck,” said the print sales manager, “we have more than usual. Wolf has cleared out his drawers to help us put together a new book of his work.” She was right, there were loads of prints, three boxes. What caught my eye in particular was a set of prints that were, without doubt, shot in pre-WW2 Amsterdam. Wolf had moved from the UK to the Netherlands in 1934 with his Dutch wife, Helena Voûte, moving back to London alone in 1935 after the marriage foundered.
I was familiar with some of Wolf’s Dutch work, but these pictures were wholly new to me. They were a mix of images of everyday street life, evidently from Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter and, to my delight, street portraits of young children from the same area. The portraits were straightforward and appealing head shots of fresh faces: smiles and frowns, smudged cheeks and tousled hair. As I looked through them I began to realise that these children might not only be united by a shared neighbourhood and the experience of being photographed by Wolf, but also by the likelihood of their deportation by the Nazis, along with the majority of Amsterdam’s Jewish population of 80,000, to death camps in Poland a few years later in 1942. If, as the curator Duncan Forbes once commented, Wolf “often monumentalises those he photographs” then it seems to me, in this specific instance, he inadvertently created a small but significant monument, inscribed with light, to these children.
Rest in peace Wolfgang Suschitzky, 1912 – 2016.