Imagine Hillfields: exhibition review by f50 Collective.

11th-31st August 2015 at Fargo Village, Far Gosford Street, Coventry, CV1 5ED.

The Imagine Hillfields exhibition is a collaboration between Fargo Village, the University of Warwick, Coventry University and Hillfields History Group, the Library of Birmingham, and the photographers Richard Sadler, John Blakemore, Masterji and Jason Scott Tilley.

The exhibition is one product of a wide ranging research project, coordinated by the University of Warwick, looking at past visions of Coventry and Hillfields’ possible futures as imagined in previous attempts at regeneration.

The exhibition itself, curated by Jason Scott Tilley, comprises 109 photographs made by the aforementioned photographers between the 1960s and 2015 plus 17 vintage portraits, of Hillfields residents, made by Taylor Brothers Studios in the 1930s.  The latter vintage portraits of Hillfields residents are from the personal family archive of Jason Scott Tilley.

The main exhibition is augmented by images combining historical and contemporary views of Hillfields in single images by re-photographer Nick Stone

On entering the exhibition we are first met by the seventeen postcard sized hand coloured portraits  produced by Taylor Brothers Studios in the 1930s.  These soft delicate images show members of Jason Scott Tilley’s family and unkown local residents of Hillfields. Having been rescued by Jason’s mother from his great aunt Violet’s house we can only wonder whether the unnamed portraits are of friends, family or were people unknown to Violet herself. Their poses are standardised according, presumably, to the house style of Taylor Brothers at the time of their production.

John Blakemore is well known as one of the UK’s leading photographic practitioner’s and educators. Born in 1936, John took up photography after seeing a report of Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition – shown at MOMA, New York in 1955 – in Picture Post while doing national service in North Africa in the mid 1950s. On returning to London in 1956 he tried his hand as a freelance photographer but found it unsatisfying and so returned to his native Coventry.

It was in the early 1960s that John produced the twenty-one square format images in this exhibition. The images here were newly printed by John Blakemore specifically for this exhibition. Famed for his beautifully composed landscape and still life black and white images, the Blakemore we see here is a revelation.  Portraits of shopkeepers and children at play dominate. The social documentary style perhaps suggesting the photographer was in transition between his London freelance work and the fine art images for which he is rightly famed. These images show a warmth and feeling for his subjects that one wouldn’t guess at from John’s landscape and still life work. In that respect they make an important contribution to our understanding of the photographer.

Masterji is well known as Coventry’s first Asian professional photographer. Having arrived in Liverpool from Mumbai in 1951, Masterji settled in Hillfields where he initially photographed members of his local community in his front room before moving to a dedicated studio in 1969. His sixty year career is represented here by a small selection of twenty images (split equally between colour and black and white). 

What is striking about the images from the 1960s to 1990s is the consistency of style shown in Masterji’s portraits. His sitters are serious faced members of the Asian community posed in a formal manner. These images communicate pride and respectability. We see men in formal suits and tweed jackets with neatly cut hair. The women are in traditional clothing. Accompanying these formal portraits are shots of sports clubs, a 1970s ‘dude’ in hat and sunglasses, and a woman stood nervously by a flower stand. These images hint at a more energetic and diverse body of work than is suggested by the constraints of a joint exhibition.

Known as a celebrity photographer and educator, Richard Sadler is represented by a surprisingly focused set of vintage images of his grandmother Minnie Sadler. The images of Minnie were taken when Richard was twenty four and Minnie was in her seventies. From the posed nature of some of the photographs, Minnie was obviously collaborating and apparently enjoying the attention. Other images show Minnie walking along Hillfields streets.

In many ways, the collective portrait these images convey of Minnie are very satisfying in providing a more rounded portrait of a single individual with a strong character and rich life history. Married to a man twenty years her senior when she was just twenty, Minnie’s husband James Sadler died after ten years of marriage leaving Minnie to raise her young son (Hathaway Sadler, the photographer’s father).

Contemporary large scale portraits of Hillfields residents by Jason Scott Tilley complete this exhibition. For those who saw Jason’s People of India show at The Herbert in 2014 the images presented may come as a surprise. These 36×36 inch images are printed in rich colour and are full of energy and vibrancy reflecting the obvious fun the photographer and sitter had in making them. The photographs are pinned to the walls, stacked three high in places, so the residents of Hillfields look both at you and down on you as if to say (quite rightly) this is our place. The portraits show a more diverse Hillfields community than those of the other photographers and so illustrate the continuing social and cultural development of the area.

There is much to like about this exhibition both photographically and as an important contribution to the wider research project Imagine Hillfields. We owe Jason Scott Tilley our gratitude for the huge amount of effort he must have put in to produce new work, curate the exhibition and in supporting the wider research project.

In summary, two impressions of this exhibition testify to its validity and significance to the Imagine Hillfields research project and, more importantly, the life of the local community of Hillfields.

First, the overriding message of this group showing is of the continuing relevance and historical importance of ‘social documentary’ as a photographic practice. Without the work of these photographers – and countless others documenting their respective communities – the record of life in communities like Hillfields would be less vivid, comprehensible and immediate to succeeding generations.

Secondly, while viewing the images there was a steady stream of local people coming through the gallery. It was impossible not to notice their excitement and engagement with the work. Recognising faces and places their chatter and laughter at viewing the photographs was the best evidence of the success of this community based exhibition.

John

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