As he grew up Philip would have learnt from his parents that they came from Jewish families once living in the city of Lviv in Poland and with the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the threat of Nazi anti-Semitic persecution, they had travelled to Paris and after the outbreak of the Second World War had made it Britain, seeking asylum in 1940. Given the fact that out of the Jewish population in Lviv numbering more than 200,000 only 800 survived the Pogroms in the city in 1941 and the Holocaust, it is likely that Philip grew up with no family except his mother and father and younger brother William and sister Victoria."too regimented" and switched to a 'PPP' course of study with Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology and a new world of social interaction, learning, child development and mental illness. It explains why, when he graduated from Oxford at the age of 21 in 1971, he opted to work in adventure playgrounds which drew him into involvement in grassroots, community politics. 'I spent most of 1975 working as a play leader on Hornimans Adventure Playground, just over the canal that separates North Paddington and North Kensington' and the photographs he shot in the summer of that year were 'with my first serious camera, an old screw-thread Leica I was given as a birthday present'.
Philip himself recalled : "My first useful work as a photographer came about through involvement with housing campaigners at the tail end of the slum clearance programmes of the 1960s and 70s".
In London, streets of poorly maintained, privately rented Victorian terraces were being torn down like those in Walterton Road, North Paddington and replaced by a brave new world of modern homes in publicly owned estates of concrete apartment blocks. These were the years when Philip moved from South Kilburn to Camden Town, where he lived in a squat and later moved into a communal house and rubbed shoulders with those who shared and reinforced his strong sense of social justice and grassroots activism. In 1975 he was living in Westminster on the first floor of a run down Victorian Terrace which was due for demolition. He recalled : 'calling it a flat is being kind. It wasn't self-contained, the toilet was shared with the tenant upstairs, it had no bathroom, and only running water was a cold tap above a Butler sink on the landing'.
This was the year the 25 year old Philip captured a group of children standing on the pavement on Kensal Road in North Kensington, where the boarded up houses behind them were soon to be demolished and replaced with a mixture of social housing and industrial units.
If Philip was occupied at Speakers' Corner on Sunday mornings, on weekdays at the Community Centre he worked with industry to teach Photography and Darkroom classes, organize displays, build a photographic archive of local events and support the work of community organizations. In 2010 he told the British Journal of Photography that "Community photography was not only part of the wave of grassroots activism of the time, it was also part of a concurrent politicization of photography. At NPCD we were concerned particularly with countering the stereotypical portrayal of women, ethnic minorities, and ‘working class struggle’, a phrase that was soon to go out of fashion in the mass media, The early community arts groups sought to democratise the arts to engage those who did not otherwise relate to the ‘mainstream’ arts world by making the arts relevant to their daily lives and experiences".'most regular and enjoyable sources of work. Its members were the unsung heroes of our public services - ambulance drivers, cleaners, carers, caretakers, cooks, dustmen, home helps, hospital porters and other NHS ancillary staff, street cleaners and more and of my commissions for the NUPE Journal gave me the opportunity to visit a huge variety of work places and the people who worked in them'. Thus, in 1983, he shot 1983 the Laundry Workers at St Charles Hospital in Notting Hill, West London and in 1985 the Southwark Council, Lugard Road Kitchens. In 1986, a domestic worker on a ward in St Charles Hospital, Notting Hill, London, was captured watching a speech by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was a good example of what Paul Carter would later say of Philip's work : 'He adds a touch of irony to make a point from time to time, but there are no barbs to his humour'.
In addition, his work with the Dominican Community in North Paddington led to his work in the 1980s in the Caribbean with banana farmers and migrant cane-cutters. In a later visit in 2002 he caught a migrant Haitian cane cutter working on a sugar plantation. He also recorded : 'Maudrie Davroux selects bananas at the packing station on her smallholding in Castle Bruce, in preparation for the fortnightly shipment to the UK under a fair trade scheme. With her son and grand-daughter she packs an average of 55, 43lb boxes per fortnight which end up on the shelves of supermarkets Tesco and Sainsburys'.'The miners fought the closures and lost. "Coal not Dole" was their rallying cry, but the collieries were bulldozed back into green fields. Now, in their place, stand tin shed-style warehouses and call centres offering small numbers of jobs at minimum wage. In the intervening years some new, high tech manufacturing has established itself, but nothing providing the large-scale employment required to make up for the huge job losses of the last 30 years'. In 1991 he recorded one of the last miners to go down 'Deep Navigation Colliery' in Treharris, South Wales, on the day it closed.
In recent years Philip used his camera to capture the currents of activism expressed in 'Occupy London', the 'Grenfell Tower Disaster', 'Brexit: The People’s Vote March', 'Extinction Rebellion' and 'COVID-19' using the same spirit of social activism that had inspired his work 50 years before. He also continued to enjoy the thrill of taking his shot and said : "With many of them I can remember the buzz I got framing something I thought would work, and I do remember struggling to grab a shot of an arrest back in 1979. It was late in the afternoon and getting dark, I was using a Leica with no built-in light meter, shooting on Tri-X at 400ASA, and was down to a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second, nowhere near ideal for capturing a struggling captive being dragged away by two policemen. Luckily one of the frames was useable"."The crowds were much bigger, that's one of the biggest changes I think. There were more political platforms, they weren't mainstream by any means, but they were things like the London Anarchist Forum and there were things that were not religious. The proportion has shifted and there are now more preachers of both Christian and Muslim faiths than I think there were back then. There were some preachers who used to go there and rant and rave and other people used to go there and heckle them. In one instance that I saw in one of the newspapers, they even chased them away".
'Is it just winter, or is Speakers' Corner in terminal decline ? On a recent visit - my first in over a year - religion, always a dominant presence, was the only thing on offer, mostly in the form of squabbles between Christian and Muslim preachers and hecklers. And there weren't more than three or four of those. I don't remember ever seeing such an unimpressive bunch. It was the last, rather miserable, Sunday of 2017. Dull and damp, with occasional spots of rain, and darkness threatening by mid-afternoon. So maybe not a fair basis for judgment. I will be back to check. I hope I am wrong'.
Philip remained up beat about the future of photojournalism. In an article for BBC News in 2011 entiltled : 'Adapt to survive : A photographer's view of the market today' he said : 'I've found the last couple of years the most difficult since I started out - but not fatal. Can the new opportunities replace the fading print market and collapsing library sales? Probably not for everyone. However, many of the old rules still apply. Quality and originality still have value. Niche specialisms are always in demand. Surviving as a freelance in the digital age requires new skills and an openness to new markets, but it is possible - and at least the scrabbling around should feel familiar. One other thing jazz and photojournalism have in common : if you want to get rich quick, try banking'.
Paul Carter, the photographer said : “The word that always comes to my mind when looking at Philip’s work is ‘warmth'. His pictures are so warm and human. There isn’t an ounce of judgment in them. Yes, he adds a touch of irony to make a point from time to time, but there are no barbs to his humour. I get such a delight from his pictures, the same delight I get from his quiet smile. He just seems able to float quietly into situations and come out with intimate moments, effortlessly composed, timed and full of the quality of light he finds”.
Philip, the photojournalist himself said :
'It is a commonplace that "a picture is worth a thousand words", but I have never been happy with that valuation of the relationship between image and text. I would rather turn it on its head and suggest that, if a photograph is worth a thousand words, it deserves a thousand words - or at least a couple of hundred. An image is not a replacement for text - they complement each other'.
"I have been to places I would never have visited and met people I would never had the privilege to engage with, had I not had a camera in my bag and a story to tell".
He shared his legacy with us in his :
Philip Wolmuth Picture Library