As anyone who has ever had to clear through a suitcase of curling snapshots left on top of their divorcing parents' wardrobe will tell you, photographs can be both objects of beauty and portals to a lost moment. A moment that, without the photograph, would have been wiped from history altogether.
The V&A became the first museum in the UK to collect photographs way back in 1852, a mere 13 years after the introduction of the daguerreotype and the accepted "birth" of photography. And yet despite this, a few years ago they realised that there was a gap in the collection: black people.
Both as the subjects of photography and the photographers themselves, black British people were under-represented in the collection. So in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives, the V&A launched Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s; a project to fill that gap, raise awareness of the contribution of black Britons to British culture and celebrate the art of photography. The result is the two new simultaneous displays open at the V&A and BCA.
We spoke to the V&A's Curator of Photography, Marta Weiss, about the project, music, studio photography and Eton suits.
VICE: It's not often that a big cultural organisation like the V&A will admit to a gap like this. Do you think it's been successful?
Marta Weiss: By the end of the project we collected 118 photographs by 17 different photographers. We did already have images by some really important contemporary black photographers, like Ingrid Pollard and Charlie Gregory, in the collection, but now we feel like we've really built on that.
When we say Black British Experience are we just talking about a London experience?
I have to admit that it is heavily weighted towards London and that's something we were concerned about. But we've got photographs by Pogus Ceasar of the Handsworth riots and life in Birmingham; of The Specials playing in Coventry. Ingrid Pollard's photographs deal with the black figure in a rural British landscape and we also have some photographs that are African.
In a very significant way Britain, particularly London, has been a meeting point for immigrant communities. So the Black British experience is actually quite multicultural. How is that reflected in this collection?
It's not just about black people in isolation – it's about black people in Britain. In Armet Francis' 1964 self portrait in the mirror, you can see a white woman sitting on the bed in the background. It shows a black photographer in action, but also in the context of a broader community.
That cultural exchange often happens through music, I suppose; like the evolution of Jamaican ska into British two-tone.
Music is definitely a presence in this exhibition. For instance, we've got female hip-hop performers and B-boys in Brixton from the 1990s taken by Normski. We've got people dressed to the nines going into The Cue Club in the early 1960s taken by Charlie Phillips and we have a photograph of a soundsystem by Dennis Morris. They're depictions of Black British culture, but also how that's influenced the British music scene.
Neil Kenlock, 'Untitled [Young woman seated on the floor at home in front of her television set]', London, 1972. © Neil Kenlock / Victoria and Albert, London
How did you create the narrative of the exhibition? Because it's not chronological.
No, it's not a chronological display by any means. The broad themes are representation and identity and how they intersect with fashion; clothing, hair, make up, interiors, textiles and furnishings.
Another mini theme is the studio portrait and the identity portrait. We have some actual studio portraits from Ghana by James Barnor, taken in the 1950s, but there are also several photographs that take that tradition of the studio portrait and twist it a little bit. For instance, Neil Kenlock in the 1970s photographed Caribbean families in their homes in London. They look very much like studio portraits, but instead of using the painted backdrop of a studio they're standing in front of the curtains in their own home and posing with their own possessions; to show how well they're doing as immigrants in this country.
Al Vandenberg took portraits on the street, but he had a real rapport with his sitters. He often sets them up with a shop front, servicing the same purpose as the studio setting. There's a certain formality to them that comes from that studio tradition, even though they're taken in the streets.
Often, studio photographs are specifically shot to send back home; to show your assimilation to a new culture or success in a new country.
Yes, the studio is a place where you can act out your fantasies – that might mean wearing your best clothes and doing your make-up well. Or, in the case of Seydou Keita in Mali, it might mean posing with a sewing machine, or with a moped as a status symbol.
How is identity shown in the photographs? Is it about creating an identity or simply capturing your identity through photography?
Maxine Walker draws on identity photos by composing her shots like you would in a photobooth. She uses clothing, make-up and wigs to transform into different versions of herself, but she's also using photography itself. If you look at the background of the one where she has a blonde wig and very light skin tone it's much lighter than on the one where she has dark skin. They've actually been shot and printed differently.
You combine the photographs with oral histories. Why were those stories important?
Well in the case of Dennis Morris, for example, he talks about his photograph from an Anglican church in Hackney; all the boys are wearing what he refers to as "Eton suits". They're very formal and very English. That was actually the choir that he was part of as a boy. It was through the church that he joined a photography club and that was how he got his start in photography.
Were there certain political or cultural moments that you felt should be included in a display of black British culture from the 1950s to the 1990s?
We've got photographs of a record shop in Brixton that was firebombed by the National Front; photographs of protests outside various court cases; photographs of racist graffiti or housing adverts. But we don't just think of photographs as a window to the world. It's not just about the subject, it has to be a great image too.
By framing the exhibition from the 1950s to the 1990s you encompass a shift in youth culture from the Windrush generation right up to the last days of analogue technology.
Yes, I suppose these were all taken with cameras, on film, not phones. You could say the whole thing goes from Windrush to digital.
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