Over the last few months Birmingham has had some amazing photographic exhibitions and this year has already seen Phyllis Nicklin and Janet Mendelsohn displays. I go to as many photo exhibitions as I can and I am surprised at how much I can learn about my own photography and also how much I discover about where I live. Let me explain.
A while ago I was lucky to see Nick Hedges photographs taken for Shelter in the late 60's. I had gone to the Science Museum in London and by chance his pictures were in the Media Space. The photographs were graphic in the way they showed the poverty and the housing conditions this poverty forced people to live in. But what really got me interested were the pictures from All Saints, Birmingham. I grew up there and went to All Saints Junior school. It made me realise that this was a poor area but I had forgotten with the passing of time. At that age I do not think I even noticed. The photos made me realise that this is how it really was for some people and not always how I remembered it.
Fast forward to 2016 and Janet Mendelsohn’s Varna Road exhibition is currently showing at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. Mendelsohn was a student when she photographed parts of Balsall Heath between 1967 and 1969 and the subject centres on the sex workers that made the area (in)famous around the time. She also shows the community and how it lived together, some with and some without, and also how it parted during the demolition of the area as the slums were cleared. It is interesting to note that the cover of Hedges’ book, Make Life Worth Living, shows the bedroom of a family living in Balsall Heath taken in 1969. The success of the Mendelsohn exhibition lies not only with the quality of the photographs but in the recognition of the area by so many people who lived or worked there. Their memories of Balsall Heath may be like mine of All Saints and Hockley, where things, in a child’s mind, were not as bad as the pictures suggest.
We now have an exhibition of Phyllis Nicklin’s photographs on display at Birmingham University. Nicklin photographed Birmingham during the 50’s and 60’s showing how it was, how it was being rebuilt and how it ended up. Of course since then it has probably been rebuilt and remodelled twice but that’s Birmingham. Nicklin’s archive is a true account of Birmingham at the time and so many of us remember the before and after pictures.
What this proves to me is that we constantly need to update photographs of who we are, were we live and work, to show the changes. We need to remind ourselves how far forward (or back) we’ve come. There will always be space for new photographers to record places that are constantly evolving as each generations' memories differ. The nostalgia trip we go on whenever we see old pictures of places we knew should not just end as we leave the exhibition but should encourage us to keep on recording our surroundings. If you want to see how this is done, just go to these exhibitions.
My photograph below is made up of material available at the Janet Mendelsohn exhibition at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. It is in fact an outtake, a hand held shot to see if the flash fired. I had set up a radio trigger to fire the flash but could not get it to work. A change of batteries cured this! The camera shake caused by the slow shutter speed produced the blurred image that I liked. A clearer shot can be seen here
Nick Hedges Make Life Worth Living photographs for Shelter 1968-72 ISBN 978 1 900747 68 4
Janet Mendelsohn Varna Road ISBN 978 1 904864 99 8
Nikon D800 105mm 0.5s f11 ISO100