Published: 4 February 2010
by DAN CARRIER
IN the days before rolling news channels, the Pathé newsreels broadcast in flea-pit cinemas were a vital source of information, with their grainy footage and Queen’s English narration; otherwise it was the papers, which had little interest in photographs due to the shady quality of newsprint; or the radio.
But the 1930s, 40s and 50s were also the heyday of the pictorial news magazine, and one of the leaders on the news stands was the Picture Post.
It created photographers who were stars in their own right – people such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photo-essays stood alongside the journalists of the period, whom they accompanied on assignments on an equal footing.
Among their number was a remarkable émigré called Gerti Deutsch, a woman who, when armed with her favoured Leica camera, could bring alive the issues of the day in photographic form.
Now a new exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum reveals the breadth of the photographer who lived in Hampstead whose work offers a window into the times she lived through. Gerti was born in 1908 in Vienna, and grew up the only child of a Jewish Austrian family. Aged 16, she enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Music, to train as a professional pianist. But her dreams were dashed when continual practice gave her pains in her arms. She was diagnosed with neuritis – and it was the end of a career before it got started.
Gerti took up photography, and headed to Paris to make a living. She believed women would be taken more seriously in the French capital. Perhaps she had heard of the likes of Gerda Taro, Robert Capa’s partner, who had left Stuttgart and was forging a career in photo-journalism in France. It was a good time to be a photographer as the pre-war period saw advances in technology, while modern art was influencing content and composition. Magazines were thirsty for images to fill their pages, and Gerti could not have chosen a more suitable profession: it called on her artistic eye, her interest in current affairs and her belief that she should bear witness to the international political landscape of the late 1930s and 1940s.
In 1937, she held an exhibition in London and a year later took her portfolio to the Picture Post where Tom Hopkinson was editor. He liked Gerti’s pictures, and liked her – the pair married later that year.
Her first assignment saw her use her knowledge of what was happening in Europe. Gerti produced a piece called “Their First Day In England” about the Kindertransport that was bringing Jewish children to safety in Britain and later followed it up with work on other child refugees fleeing the war.
Her range was wide, but she honed in on subjects that were close to her heart. Having trained as a pianist, music figured highly. Gerti shot Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten, and followed conductors at such classical music centres as Vienna and Salzburg.
She returned to Vienna in 1948 and captured the city under the control of the Allies.
She created a record of Vienna coming to terms with the behaviour of its political class, the loss of its reputation for artistic enlightenment, and the damage to its fabric during the long years of war.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, while living in the Vale of Health, Gerti worked for such publications as Tatler, Queen and Harper’s Bizarre.
But when the 1960s began, new kids on the block such as David Bailey brought a youthful zest with mini-skirted King’s Road subjects to the fore. Gerti left London behind and returned to Salzburg.
This exhibition shows the skills that made her a pre-eminent witness to the political and social events of the period in which she made her name.
• Gerti Deutsch – Between Vienna and London Images from Austria and England (1932–1952) is at the Austrian Cultural Forum London, 28 Rutland Gate, SW7, from February 3-April 23. 020 7225 7300 www.acflondon.org/
•A Man Named Su: the work of the Viennese photographer and cameraman Wolf Suschitzky is also showing at the Austrian Cultural Forum until February 28