Wolfgang Suschitzky obituary

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Customers at a Lyons Corner House in London in 1941, photographed by Wolfgang Suschitzky. Photograph: SYNEMA – Society for Film & Media

Although born in Vienna, the photographer and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who has died aged 104, forged his career in the UK where, as a Jew and a socialist, he took refuge in the 1930s. His best-known photographs remain those taken at dawn on Charing Cross Road in London at that time. The steam rising from the asphalt as cloth-capped workers lay the road surface ahead of the steamroller, and the whitish glow of milk bottles on a float, are eerie period essays in black and white, a paean to the dignity of labour.

Suschitzky was the cinematographer for Get Carter (1971), shot on location in north-east England, starring Michael Caine. His early cinematic work – in collaboration with the director Paul Rotha – was in a documentary style similar to that of his stills, with titles such as Children of the City (1944), a dramatised study of deprived children in Dundee, the Bafta-winning The World Is Rich (1948), a hard-hitting documentary that looked at food distribution following the second world war, and No Resting Place (1951), among the first British feature films shot entirely on location. He also worked on Jack Clayton’s Oscar-winning short The Bespoke Overcoat (1955).

Suschitzky’s photography has enjoyed something of a renaissance this century, with his inclusion in a number of group shows, not least Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 at Tate Britain in 2012. On his centenary in the same year, he received a Bafta special award for his cinematography.

Suschitzky’s father, Wilhelm, and mother, Adele (nee Bauer), were secular Jews who owned a radical bookshop in Vienna. Wilhelm, a noted free-thinker, killed himself during the rise of nazism. Wolfgang’s elder sister, Edith (later Tudor-Hart), was also a photographer, and a great influence on her brother.

An image by Wolfgang Suschitzky of workers applying asphalt to the surface of Charing Cross Road, London, in the 1930s

Suschitzky left Vienna, and the Austrofascist regime that seized power in 1934, for Amsterdam, where he met and married Puck Youte, with whom he opened a photography studio. By 1935 the marriage was ailing and he left for London. There, he met Rotha and they began to work together. Suschitzky was committed to photographing his adopted homeland and to helping others escape from his former one, including his two brothers who, having been held at Dachau, were eventually released, only to be interned on the Isle of Man.

Despite graduating in photography from the Höhere Graphische Bundes-Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (School of Design and Graphic Arts) in Vienna, Suschitzky’s first passion was zoology, and he found lifelong pleasure in photographing animals. His animal portraits have a particularly Bauhaus imprint, his zebras a study in geometry.

In 1940 he held his first exhibition – of animal pictures – in London and published his first book, the “how to” guide Photographing Children, which was followed by Photographing Animals a year later. “It always pays to make only slow movements when you take pictures of animals,” he explained. “I never carry food when I walk through the zoo. The animals soon smell whether you have anything in your pocket. As far as possible I avoid zoo backgrounds. They either look depressing or incongruous.” He was characteristically modest: “Any competent photographer can take good animal pictures; there is no particular technical knowledge required … I have the greatest respect for the nature photographer and for those who take pictures of animals for scientific records.”

His childhood ambition had been to become a zoologist and in 1956 he was delighted to supply the photographs for the book The Kingdom of the Beasts by Julian Huxley, whose scientific views closely corresponded to his own.

Always believing that man was but one remove from animals, and that the child is father to the man, Suschitzky specialised in child portraits that broke with the studio stereotype. He preferred to photograph in natural light, if possible out of doors, and the Photography Year Books printed annually in the 1950s and 60s frequently included his images of children engrossed in building sandcastles and skiing down mountain slopes, while the World Exhibition of Photography used others in the shows What Is Man? (1964) and Woman (1968).

Suschitzky’s work as a freelance cameraman became increasingly heterogeneous, with films as diverse as Ulysses (1967), Ring of Bright Water (1969) and Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970); and those on the artists Poussin (1968) and Claude Lorrain (1970). He was always realistic that it was the film work that paid the bills to support a growing family – he had three children, born to his second wife, Ilona (nee Donat).

Michael Caine, left, and Ian Hendry in Get Carter, 1971, for which Wolfgang Suschitzky was the cinematographer. Photograph: Allstar/METRO

Suschitzky became increasingly interested in themes prompted by Edward Steichen’s international The Family of Man exhibition in 1955, which set out to explore how “people are different the world over, and everywhere the same”. His work for Geographical magazine extended into series on the daily lives of people in Burma, Thailand, Yemen, Ethiopia and India.

By the 1980s, Suschitzky was also working in television commercials and was the cinematographer for the children’s series Worzel Gummidge (1980-81). In the same decade he began to receive somewhat belated recognition for his photography, in the Art in Exile exhibition in the UK (a touring show that originated in Berlin) and exhibitions in London at the Photographers’ Gallery, Camden Arts Centre and Zelda Cheatle Gallery. The work on display at the last of these presented images of both his abandoned and his acquired homelands, as seen in Suschitzky’s book Charing Cross Road in the 1930s (1989).

More recent publications include the retrospective Wolf Suschitzky Photos (2006, introduced by the Magnum photographer Erich Lessing), and Wolf Suschitzky Films (with a tribute by the Get Carter director, Mike Hodges), in 2010. Seven Decades of Photography (for which I wrote an introduction) appeared in 2014. In the same year he was granted an honorary doctorate at the University of Brighton.

Wolfgang Suschitzky’s eerie period essays in black and white are a paean to the dignity of labour. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

Earlier this year he shared a major exhibition with Dorothy Bohm and Neil Libbert, fellow photographers of his heritage and generation, at the Ben Uri Gallery in north London. Called Unseen, it and the accompanying book drew further on “overlooked” images of London, Paris and New York by the three photographers, who all attended the launch.

Suschitzky believed that great photography is “a combination of the right choice of detail, the elimination of all that is inessential and the right moment that makes the picture”. He demystified his technique still further, by adding: “I was always quite content to be a good craftsman.” His cinematographer son, Peter, spoke of Suschitzky’s “patient and discreetly watchful eye, never seeking to impose his own views but always ready to give technical advice, and reluctant to help in decisions involving personal taste”.

Celebrations for his centenary included a party at the Camden Arts Centre and a reception at the Photographers’ Gallery where his work was on show in the print room. When I invited him to lunch in an Austrian cafe in London, a neat queue formed to obtain his signature. With his amused eye, mild manner, gentle warmth and large heart, he was always the gallant gentleman. He signed, then shook the men’s, and kissed the ladies’, hands.

Suschitzky’s marriage to Ilona ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, Heather, his children, Peter, Julia and Misha, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren.

Wolfgang Suschitzky, photographer and cinematographer, born 29 August 1912; died 7 October 2016