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Major exhibition celebrates the almost-forgotten work of woman who helped transform British photography
Edith Tudor-Hart, Man Selling Fruit, Vienna, about 1930. Modern silver gelatine print from archival negative, 30.30 x 30.10 cm. Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Archive presented by Wolfgang Suschitzky 2004© Photograph by Edith Tudor Hart.

EDINBURGH.- The life and work of one of the most extraordinary photographers in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Based on extensive new research, Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny, is the first full presentation of the Austrian-born photographer’s work. The exhibition presents over 80 photographs, many of which have never been shown before, and includes film footage, Tudor-Hart’s scrapbook and a selection of her published stories in books and magazines.

During the 1930s, photography became implicated in the vital political and social questions of the era as never before. The enhanced technological capacities of the camera and faster printing processes offered left-wing political activists new techniques for popular mobilisation. The medium took on a sharper social purpose, breaking down the traditional divisions of culture through its quality of immediacy and capacity for self-representation.

Edith Tudor-Hart was a key exponent of this aesthetic of engagement, with images that show a sophisticated realism, marked by their directness and capacity to communicate issues of inequality and deprivation. In a turbulent decade, she attempted to use the camera as a political weapon, aligning her practice with the wider worker photography movement.

Tudor-Hart’s photography dealt with many of the major social issues of the day, including poverty, unemployment and slum housing. Her imagery is a vital record of the politically-charged atmosphere of inter-war Vienna and Britain during the Great Slump of the 1930s. After 1945, Tudor-Hart concentrated on questions of child welfare, producing some of the most psychologically penetrating imagery of children of her era.

Tudor-Hart’s life story as a photographer is inextricably tied to the great political upheavals of the twentieth century. Born Edith Suschitzky in Vienna in 1908, she grew up in radical Jewish circles in a city ravaged by the impact of the First World War. Her childhood was dominated by social issues in a culture acutely aware of the impact of the Russian Revolution.

After training as a Montessori teacher, she studied photography at the Bauhaus in Dessau and pursued a career as a photojournalist. However, her life was turned upside down in May 1933 when she was arrested whilst working as an agent for the Communist Party of Austria. She escaped long-term imprisonment by marrying an English doctor, Alexander Tudor-Hart, and was exiled to London shortly afterwards. Notoriously, Tudor-Hart continued to combine her practice as a photographer with low-level espionage for the Soviet Union and was pursued by the security services until her death in 1973.

Tudor-Hart’s photography introduced into Britain formal and narrative features that derived from her training on the Continent. Her method initiates a dialogue with those she photographs, very different from the more distancing imagery of the photojournalists. Along with thirty or so German-speaking exile photographers, many of Jewish origin, Tudor-Hart helped transform British photography.

After the Second World War, rejected by Fleet Street and the British establishment, Tudor-Hart turned to documenting issues of child welfare. Her photographs were published in Picture Post and a range of other British magazines. By the late 1950s she had abandoned photography altogether.

Commenting on the exhibition, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Christopher Baker, said, ‘We are really pleased to be staging this thrilling retrospective of Tudor-Hart’s photography. It combines stunning images with an intriguing life-story and illuminates a turbulent period in European history. Tudor-Hart was one of the great photographers of her era.’

Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny is drawn largely from the photographer’s negative archive, which was donated to the National Galleries of Scotland by her family in 2004. The exhibition travels to the Wien Museum in September and will form the first complete presentation of her work in Austria.

Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny is being shown in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery and follows on from Jitka Hanzlová, continuing a strong series of photography exhibitions in the refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, named after the renowned American photographer, is supported by a very generous donation from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is being used over three years to produce innovative displays, exhibitions and research. The Gallery is the first purpose-built photography space of its kind in a major museum in Scotland.

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