Duncan Forbes is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster, London. He was previously Director of Fotomuseum Winterthur and Senior Curator of Photography at the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Recent exhibitions and publications include Provoke: Between Protest and Performance – Japanese Photography 1960–1975, (2016); Beastly/Tierisch, (2015); Manifeste! Eine andere Geschichte der Fotografie, (2014); and Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny, (2013). He is based between Los Angeles and London.
The Photography of Edith Tudor-Hart (1908–1973)
The project involved research into the Austrian-born exile photographer, Edith Tudor-Hart (née Suschitzky), who fled from Vienna to London in 1934. (Specifically, I applied to the Palmquist Memorial Fund to support a research trip to Vienna.) Trained at the Bauhaus in Dessau, she was recruited to the Comintern around 1929 and worked as a low-level Soviet operative in Austria and Great Britain. I gained access to her negative archive in 2003 and worked intermittently over a ten-year period to research her life and make modern prints from her unprinted negatives.
My ambition was to refocus attention away from the overblown narrative of the ‘woman spy’ towards a fuller assessment of the transitions in Tudor-Hart’s photographic practice. With its realist incubation in Austria and Germany, my research revealed how her photography jolted our idea of the evolution of political modernism in Britain. I wanted to challenge the insistent incorporation of her work into British social-democratic documentary traditions and explore the way it offered an alternative to that tradition’s conservative and masculine visual rhetoric. The historical realization of Tudor-Hart’s work was fleeting, suffocated by wider political failure and personal exhaustion. Nonetheless, she is a vital figure in radical traditions in both British and Austrian photography.
We may not exactly learn lessons from the past, but Tudor-Hart’s legacy has proved to be substantial. Immediate outcomes of my research included two exhibitions, held at the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh and the Wien Museum, Austria between 2013 and 2014. The latter was accompanied by a book supported by the Wien Museum and in particular its inspirational Director, Wolfgang Kos. The exhibitions and book proved popular, generating extensive public discussion in venues impressed by very different crystallizations of historical memory. That response – in terms of letters of enquiry etc. – continues until today.
The exhibition inspired a wave of interest in Tudor-Hart, resulting in further small-scale displays of her work at Tate Britain and at the Barbican’s 2016 exhibition, Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Tudor-Hart is now a fixture in the British photographic canon at least. Furthermore, Peter Stephan Jungk has published a fictionalized biography of her life in German and directed a biographical film titled ‘Auf Ediths Spuren’ (‘Tracking Edith’, 2016). Tudor-Hart’s work is also being taught at undergraduate level in Britain, resulting in regular student enquiries. Finally, I have written a critique of Tudor-Hart’s reception since the 2013 exhibition published in History Workshop Journal in 2017.