Show Hide image

Perspectives: Elsbeth Juda, photographer, on a life in pictures

My photographic career began relatively late, after I came to London as refugee from the Nazis.

I was born in 1911 in Darmstadt, Germany, where my father taught philosophy, and the house was full of books – but there were relatively few pictures.

I had spread my wings as a young woman by moving to Paris when I was 18, but I was married and living back in Germany when, one evening in 1933, my husband, Hans, was eating in a cafe near the newspaper where he worked. One of the other customers was an SS man who got up to leave without paying the bill.

A waitress who tried to challenge him was brushed aside. Hans stood up for her and the situation turned very ugly. There was a brief fight, which ended in Hans being given a summons to appear before a magistrate for insulting a member of the SS.

Having dinner at the house of a friend, who was high up in the interior ministry, Hans showed him the summons. As soon as he saw it he told us to stop eating, to leave that very moment, and to get out of the country. We went straight home, packed a suitcase and left for England.

Finding work as a married woman (in those days married women were supposed to stay at home) was difficult. Being a foreigner didn’t help, either. Eventually I became a “darkroom boy” and got my lucky break when the company I worked for was given the commission to do a fashion shoot for a clothing catalogue.

The usual photographer was late returning from his holidays, so I was asked to stand in for him. The shoot was a success and I was called in to the manager’s office and promoted to photographer.

Hans and I had many artistic friends, and I loved working with artists. One was Henry Moore, whom I photographed while he was at work on his sculpture King and Queen, to mark the 1953 coronation. His studio was like an industrial workshop.

A cosier environment – physically, though not emotionally – was Chartwell, the country house where I went to photograph Graham Sutherland, who was visiting Winston Churchill after being commissioned by parliament to paint his portrait. This was a disaster: Churchill hated the finished product and Lady Churchill later had it destroyed.

My photographs showed Graham at work, but also included some studies I took of Churchill, which Graham used to work from when he wasn’t actually with his subject. They got off to a bad start when Graham turned up with a tiny notepad in which to make early sketches. Churchill was irritated: “Young man, you do not have the right kit!” And it went downhill from there.

I have always been interested in politics as well as the arts.

Because of my age, I have seen a huge amount of political change. As a child I was taken by my father to the main public square in Darmstadt to hear the news of the Kaiser’s abdication. Father was pleased: he was a liberal who believed in democracy. He died in 1929, so was spared seeing the Republic usurped by the Nazis.

I have had exhibitions in Germany since the war and still have German friends, but England has been my home for over three quarters of a century.

Hans fell in love with England the moment he saw the cliffs of Dover. When he died, I stopped taking photographs and made collages and paintings instead. But as we enter a new age of austerity, I have enjoyed revisiting the exhibition photographs I took in the original Austerity Britain, sixty years ago.

As told to by Paul Ibell

“Elsbeth Juda: Photographs 1940-1965” is at L’Équipement des Arts, 19 New Quebec Street, London W1, 11am-7pm daily, until 7 June