Groundbreaking Images by the Founder of the First Women's Photographic Agency in the UK

"If somebody wanted a photograph of a person doing a certain job, we would send them a photograph of a woman doing it."

17 August 2016, 12:00am

Sanctified sisters, Shaw, Mississippi, 1972

This story appeared in the August issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

The first photograph Val Wilmer took of anybody "significant" was of Louis Armstrong leaving London Airport [today's Heathrow] for Ghana in 1956, when she was just 14 years old. As she puts it, "You start at the top, and it's downhill all the way." As early as the age of 12, her love of jazz drove her to discover artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Americans who were just starting to perform again in Britain after a long battle surrounding labor restrictions. In the early 60s, she interviewed and photographed black musicians for magazines like Jazz Journal and Melody Maker, strongly informed by her subjects' sociopolitical situation and the civil rights movement. Wilmer describes her decision to focus on such subjects as so obvious as to have been a non-decision. "Everyone tells me that writing about jazz, and being concerned about black society, were strange subjects to choose, but to me it was just part of what my life was about. Very important things that have continued to influence me ever since."

A renowned writer on jazz, blues, and the history of black music, she also started the first women's photographic agency, Format, in 1983 along with co-founder Maggie Murray. Aiming both to raise the profile of female photographers and to tackle widespread preconceptions and prejudices, Format took a unique approach to supplying images. "If somebody wanted a photograph of a person doing a certain job, we would send them a photograph of a woman doing it," Wilmer said. "If they wanted a photo of someone where they guessed, or assumed, the person would be white doing something, we might send them a photo of a black or Asian person doing it." Though the emergence of mega agencies like Getty Images ushered in hard times for smaller ones like Format, it was, Wilmer says, also their own politics that hastened the closure of their company. "People expected us to only cover 'women's subjects,' which of course we didn't. There were eight of us covering a marvelous range of subjects and styles. But—just as when anybody black starts up a photo agency and people assume they will only cover black subjects, which is of course ridiculous—they did. It will always be that way... you do your best to change perceptions, but it's one step forward and two steps back, as with many things in life."

Mother’s Day, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, 1974

Nigerian wedding guests, Camden, London, 1960s

Skip James’s hometown, Bentonia, Mississippi, 1976

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