Lora Verner is an eighty-something artist and photographer who has lived in West Hampstead since 1979, and whose vintage Biba photographs feature in the V&A Museum’s permanent collection.
Born in New York in 1929, the only child of Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms, Lora grew up in Philadelphia where she studied Abstract Expressionism, and became a student at the University of Philadelphia. In the swinging sixties Lora moved to London, where she trained in photography through the Inner London Education Authority with her work influenced by the striking photography of Bill Brandt (who lived in nearby Belsize Park).
While working as a teacher at the Holland Park School, Lora heard about a new shop called Biba, located near the school and popular with her pupils. Taking her Roloflex camera, she visited the now-iconic, dimly-lit shop. As she disliked using flash, she had to return another time with a higher speed film, which would achieve the high contrast black-and-white images she was after. Fascinated by the mannequins, which reminded her of Surrealist art, Lora took several photographs of the Biba display, saved them, and forgot about them. For fifty years.
During the 1980s, sometime after her move to West Hampstead, Lora bought a round-the-world ticket and travelled to Japan and China, where she took colour photographs for the first time. Her photographs of Japan were exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre, and she submitted her photos of China to the Photographer’s Gallery in a competition – and won. The prize was an exhibition of her pictures, which drew favourable reviews from The Guardian among others. In later years, Lora travelled often to India, and created a series she entitled ‘Faces of India’.
For personal reasons Lora stopped taking art classes but, in 2011, at the suggestion of a friend who was taking an art class at the West Hampstead Community Centre she went along and started painting again. The depression she had been suffering from began to lift. Over the next three years, Lora created more than 30 portraits from imagination, and in September 2017, she was offered the chance to show her ‘Not Your Usual Portraits’ in a glass kiosk below the Edgware Road/Harrow Road crossing – the Joe Strummer Subway.
And the Biba pictures? Lora said, “ I had been thinking one day that I should do something with them. I called Christie’s to have them appraised. Then I called the V&A Museum and they said they were very interested.” Lora’s initiative was perfectly timed: the V & A was working on a retrospective of Biba for the fashion label’s 50th anniversary, and they bought several of Lora’s pictures. Three of them are now in the V&A, and her work is featured in the book ‘The Biba Years 1963-1975’.
What does Lora like most about West Hampstead? She smiled and said, “We have everything here… the different restaurants. We have Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian.. we’re spoiled for choice, really!” For this world traveller and photographer, West Hampstead is picture perfect.