A Black and White History of Birminam's Jamaicans; for 45 Years, Birmingham's Vanley Burke Has Captured the Lives of the Caribbean Community in and around Handsworth and It's Won Him International Acclaim. Ahead of a Retrospective Exhibition of His Work He Spoke to Justine Halifax

The Birmingham Post (England), August 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Black and White History of Birminam's Jamaicans; for 45 Years, Birmingham's Vanley Burke Has Captured the Lives of the Caribbean Community in and around Handsworth and It's Won Him International Acclaim. Ahead of a Retrospective Exhibition of His Work He Spoke to Justine Halifax


Byline: Justine Halifax

Dubbed the "Grandfather of Black British photography", Vanley Burke was aged just 10 when he held a camera in his hand for the very first time.

Only the second camera the Jamaican boy had ever seen, it was an iconic Box Brownie that his beloved mother had sent him from Birmingham, where she was living.

"Where we were from, in rural Jamaica, we weren't used to seeing cameras. Any gift, such as a toy car, would have been welcomed, but this was different," he said.

"I was intrigued by how the image was recorded. I was fascinated by the science of how the images got from one place to another and how you could reproduce it. After it was explained to me I started using it.

"The experience of using it was so intriguing, too, as was the smell of the film itself.

"The only camera I'd seen before was the one that a man who toured our villages taking pictures of people to order had. He gave me my first lesson telling me to always keep the sun behind me and to press the shutter gently."

And the rest, as they say, is history. For in an internationally acclaimed career spanning 45 years, the father-of-three has amassed an impressive visual collection of images that documents the lives of the Caribbean community living in and around Handsworth.

Not only has his work been described as "unparalleled", so too has his ability to connect with his subject.

And now Birmingham's mac is preparing to host a retrospective exhibition of his work, entitled By The Rivers Of Birminam, featuring 100 photographs, shot entirely in black and white, some which have never gone on public display before.

Mac spokeswoman Charli Hill said: "Since the mid-1960s, Vanley Burke has photographed the Jamaican community in the Handsworth area of Birmingham.

"By the Rivers of Birminam will bring together 100 new and existing images for the first time which explore the history of the Caribbean community in the city from 1967 to the present day.

"Curated by Lynda Morris, the exhibition charts Vanley Burke's practice over the last 45 years, during which time he has produced what is considered to be the greatest photographic document of Caribbean people in post-war Britain, detailing the experience of black people in the UK and their community identity.

"This is going to be a really significant exhibition for us."

She added: "Burke has had, and continues to have, an intimacy with his subject that national press photographers historically have been unable to achieve.

"This can be seen in the portraits of the generations from childhood and youth to old age; the musicians, the intellectuals, the soldiers, the church choirs and the members of the Nation of Islam.

"This careful and considered collection of photographs will concentrate on the intelligence of the Caribbean communities, showing the beauty, the closeness, the churches and family values, as well as the political, emotional and spiritual life which is identifiable across all social groups in Handsworth."

The images will be accompanied by contemporaneous newspapers cuttings, including from the Birmingham Post, which will put into context the wealth of images taken at key historical events.

The grandfather-of-five was at African Liberation Day in 1977 in Handsworth Park, where Britain's biggest ever all-black crowd had ever gathered.

He was also there in 1981, 1985 and 2011 when Birmingham's streets erupted in violent riots.

But why and when did the long standing fascination with the camera and documenting Caribbean life in England begin? It all started when Vanley, who cites James VanDerZee as one of the people who inspired him, moved to Handsworth as a 15-year-old boy in 1965.

Initially, he used photography as a means of telling friends back home in Jamaica about what life was like in England.

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