As usual, I turn up painfully early. Absorbed in an auto-pilot power walk, I'm on a mission to see Dorothy Bohm's most recent collection of photographs, Women in Focus. Ushered out of the building to make space for their preparation, I find myself in a nearby café waiting anxiously, genuinely excited for the preview. As a woman, how could I not admire and relate to these beautiful off-guard portraits showcasing what Bohm describes as the "pro-creator"?
Curated in a relatively small space, these 33 digital colour photographs are all individually framed and in groups of five. Mannequins and artificial plastic-skinned women adorn the early images; evidently false, lifeless and retained behind metal barred-glass windows. Beside these, a snapshot of a hairdressers' salon with the words "God is able" printed on top, titled Dalston 2012. I immediately understood Bohm's way of photographing: without judgement. It's unhindered street photography, capturing the protagonist woman in humorous relativity with the "outside world". A particularly eye-catching photograph is of a woman at a bus stop dressed in grey attire, presumably representing the modern working female. Juxtaposed behind her is a brash, high contrast advertisement of a lady selling loo roll, her eyes perfectly aligned with the subject in front.
Halfway through the evening, I overhear Dorothy Bohm talking to a young woman. The woman asks why she's so glad to be a female photographer; Bohm replies, "My understanding of women is better, these are pictures only a woman could've taken". I completely understand where she's coming from: there's a subtlety and intuition in this series that feels careful and respectful of boundary and limitation: she manages to photograph strangers respectfully, almost as if she knows them, which I find in photography an absolute rarity.
A few minutes later, almost as if set up, an elderly man makes his way over to me. He states almost spontaneously that "the woman in the picture is not important; it's not remotely part of it. To me it's the places these people are in: [he points] this is so profoundly Hampstead, this so profoundly Camden". I found these varying speculations between gender fascinating. It made me wonder if all men would think likewise, and whether all women recognize womanhood in the photos, and then relate to them personally.
At the end of the series, one photograph particularly grabs my attention: three elderly women are sitting on benches beside a young girl in a pram; the image is titled Southbank 1996. None of them seem aware of each other, but there's a prominent sense of generation, of family history. I feel a real sense of womanhood that's not so profound in any other picture; it illuminates security, care and distinctly tugs at my maternal instinct.
Before I leave, I wander up to Dorothy Bohm. I don't want to interrogate her or demand her to explain anything; her work, to me, speaks for itself. She explains to me that she feels that the human being and life are what matter; stressing repeatedly that she is a humanist and what's important is what is good. I felt a wave of admiration in that five-minute conversation: Bohm airs such a belief in the good of people. I leave feeling empowered and jubilant – not half bad for a Wednesday evening.
Discover a new display of colour photographs by acclaimed photographer Dorothy Bohm, showing the varied lives of London women from the 1990s to the present.
With an aim to capture the many roles of women in society, Bohm juxtaposes the images of women that surround us in advertising, artworks and shop windows with real women living and working in the capital – revealing the contrasts, similarities and gaps between ideals and expectations of the feminine and real life women in everyday situations.
Museum of London150 London Wall
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 5HN
Monday to Sunday: 10am-6pm
Please note that the galleries will begin to close at 5.40pm
Closed: 24 to 26 December