Obituary: Wolfgang Suschitzky, photographer and Get Carter cinematographer

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Wolfgang Suschitzky, photographer and cinematographer. Born: 29 August, 1912 in Vienna. Died: 7 October, aged 104.

Wolfgang Suschitzky, an Austrian-born photographer and cinematographer who was a key figure in a British film movement of the 1930s and 40s that saw documentaries as a force for social good, has died. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Julia Donat, and his son Misha Donat on Saturday.

Suschitzky started working in documentary film in the late 1930s, when he collaborated with Paul Rotha. Along with the filmmaker and critic John Grierson, who was widely credited with coining the term documentary, Rotha was a leading proponent of the genre as an instrument that could dignify and elevate everyday life.

Suschitzky brought a similar social consciousness to his street photography. Duncan Forbes, who organized a show of Suschitzky’s work for the National Galleries of Scotland in 2002, said Suschitzky had been “careful to highlight social grades and distinctions” in photographs that often expressed quiet hope over despair.

Whether his subjects were workers laying down paving stones or men in fedoras browsing secondhand bookstore shelves, he depicted them as content doing whatever they were doing.

“Suschitzky often monumentalizes those he photographs,” Forbes wrote in an essay. “His are romantic images, consciously beautiful.”

Suschitzky’s documentaries included a film about the steel industry, an 11-minute short about rents in Aberdeen and a film about world hunger. He later won praise for feature film cinematography, notably for Joseph Strick’s 1967 version of Ulysses and the British crime film Get Carter (1971), directed by Mike Hodges and starring Michael Caine.

Wolfgang Suschitzky was born in Vienna on Aug. 29, 1912, to parents of Jewish heritage. The family lived in a working-class neighborhood where his father, Wilhelm, an atheist, ran a socialist bookstore with his brother.

Suschitzky wanted to study zoology but decided on photography as a more practical pursuit. He studied for three years at the school for graphic arts in Vienna, where he met a fellow photography student, Helena Voûte, who was known as Puck.

By the 1930s, Austria had become an untenable place for Jews.

“Red Vienna had disappeared, more or less,” Suschitzky later recalled, referring to the period after the First World War when the Social Democrats controlled the city. “Parliament was dissolved, trade unions were forbidden, trade unionists were imprisoned. So I thought there is no future for me in Austria.”

Suschitzky and Voûte moved to Britain in early 1934 and married in March. His father committed suicide that spring, and his mother escaped to Britain as well. His father’s brother, the co-owner of the Brueder Suschitzky bookstore, was later killed at Auschwitz.

In moving to Britain, Suschitzky and Voûte were following his older sister, Edith Tudor-Hart, who had married a British doctor.

In the 1990s, KGB documents confirmed what British intelligence agencies had long suspected: Tudor-Hart, who was also a photographer, had been a spy for the Soviet Union. She had probably helped to recruit Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge spy ring, which passed British intelligence secrets to Moscow during the Second World War.

As a photographer newly arrived from continental Europe, Suschitzky was immediately drawn to animals as subjects, taking his Rolleiflex camera to the Whipsnade branch of the London Zoo and putting his lens through holes in the fences cut by understanding zookeepers. A favorite subject of his was a gorilla named Guy.

“The almost human expression is perhaps disturbing,” Suschitzky said of a photograph of Guy in an interview for a collection of his work published as a book in 2006.

In the 1930s, Suschitzky and Voûte left Britain for the Netherlands, and their marriage ended soon afterward. Suschitzky went back to Britain. In the ensuing war, Germany overran the Netherlands.

“My wife left me,” Suschitzky said, “which was great luck, because had I stayed there, I wouldn’t be alive any more.”

Suschitzky’s next marriage, to Ilona Donat, ended in divorce. His marriage to Beatrice Cunningham ended with her death in 1989. Voûte died in 2003.

Suschitzky’s survivors include his partner, Heather Anthony; three children from his second marriage — Julia Donat, a theater casting director; Misha Donat, a musicologist and writer; and Peter Suschitzky, a longtime cinematographer for the director David Cronenberg — nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

As a cinematographer, Suschitzky was best known for this work on Get Carter, about a London gangster who travels to his hometown, Newcastle, to look into his brother’s death. The British Film Institute has ranked it among the top 100 British films.

Hodges, the film’s director, wrote in an email in 2014 that Suschitzky was essential to the project as director of photography. Hodges wanted to do something grittier than the kind of “well-made polished film” that was more traditional at the time.

“I chose him because of a 1963 film, The Small World of Sammy Lee, that he’d lit,” Hodges wrote. “I remembered it as being very experimental in its use of the hand-held camera and thought this is the DP for me. I was right. He was only too happy to help me break the rules that he’d adhered to most of his professional life.”

He was self-effacing in interviews, casting himself as a mere observer of others. “I had the good luck to meet interesting people in my job,” Suschitzky said, recalling his portraits of figures including Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, and HG Wells. “You just shook hands and disappeared behind your camera.”

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT Syndication Services