Last summer, Boris Bennett, a successful businessman, passed away at the age of eighty-five. Toan older generation, he was known simply as “Boris the Photographer”. For, in his younger days, Boris was the doyen of Jewish portrait photographers. Many Jewish families who originated from London’s East End possess at least one “Boris” masterpiece.
Boris’s technique was to exude a personal charm in making his customers feel at ease amidst a glamorous setting. This permitted him to photograph between fifty and sixty bridal couples in a single Sunday and to rapidly produce the proofs the following day. On Sundays, there was such a crowd outside his studio in the Whitechapel Road that police were often called in to direct traffic away from the area.
Boris was born in Poland, one of eight children. At the end of World War I, he went to Paris where he worked in all sorts of odd jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, he was approached by a manufacturer who specialized in affixing photographs onto cufflinks and other such adornments. Boris was asked to establish a branch in England. Following his initial success in London, he used his meagre savings to open a photographic studio in Fieldgate Street at the back of Whitechapel Road.
It is estimated that Boris took about 40,000 wedding photographs—yet none of the negatives has survived. The Museum of the East End has diligently collected a large number of portraits from former customers and a selection of these are an integral part of a new exhibition depicting the work and times of Boris Bennett. Boris’s box camera is on display together with a recreation of one of his distinctive sets.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1986