Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to Philip Wolmuth, Champion of the People's Photography and Chronicler of the changing face of Speakers' Corner

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For half a century Philip, who has died at the age of 70, has been busy creating a photographic record, inspired by his social activism and covering subjects ranging from community groups in Paddington; hostels for the homeless; ex-mining villages in South Yorkshire; schools and workplaces in Britain and banana and sugar plantation workers in the in Caribbean. At the same time he was equally at home taking portraits of senior politicians and capturing either party political conferences or academic seminars and snapping backstage at the English National Opera and Speech Day at Harrow School.

Philip was born in the Autumn of 1950 in London Borough of Islington, the son of Judyta and Henry. The year before he was born his father, a GP, had opened the first new surgery to be set up in the London Borough of Harrow under the auspices of the new National Health Service which, because he hated turning anyone away, soon developed into the biggest singlehanded practice in the area. 

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. 

A self-taught photographer, Philip carried a camera with him in his spare time from an early age and at school, no doubt with his father's encouragement, had applied to the sciences, excelled in his sixth form 'A' levels and gained a place at Oxford University to follow in his father's footsteps and study medicine. That being said, he found the course "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. 

Philip recorded that : '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. 

He now came into contact with and was inspired by photographer Paul Carter, who had started the pioneering 'Blackfriars Photography Project' with the community in  Blackfriars Settlement in 1973. Paul later reflected that 'I was already sensing that there was something that was not quite right about the business of photojournalism, about parachuting into people's lives, all for the right reasons and then coming out and leaving them to all that and you getting paid for it. So already there was some kind of tension there'. Paul recently related and illustrated the work of the Project in a zoom meeting.

Philip now set about using photography as a means to, not only document how poorer people lived with their housing problems and low paid work, but also to 'democratize' the medium decades before the advent of digital photography. He applied for a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and at the age of 26, set up the 'North Paddington Community Darkroom' on the Harrow Road in West London in 1976. 

Phillip's mission in the 'Darkroom', committee meetings, like the one here in 1978, was to make art accessible to people outside the mainstream art world and empower local residents with a working knowledge of photography. It was located in ideal urban territory, on the border of Portobello and Notting Hill, North Paddington and North Kensington, which were poor areas in rich London boroughs. They were afflicted by economic deprivation, housing shortage, substandard housing, overcrowding, and boarded up properties, along with high unemployment amid the working class immigrant community. Philip's recently published 'Notting Hill 1970s', drew on his archive for these years which included his bicycle and a cleaners trolley next to a wall sprayed with pro-squatting graffiti in Westbourne Grove.

In 1977, Philip also started a lifelong project documenting the face-to-face public debate of speakers, hecklers and audiences at Speakers’ Corner, in Hyde Park and entitled his chronicle, published in 2015 : 'Speakers’ Corner: Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace'. The speaker who tried to convince the audience about their sin was one of the first photographs he shot. Right from the start he said : "I deliberately did not get involved in debates and arguments as I wanted to remain as unobtrusive as possible, the proverbial ‘fly-on-the-wall’. My aim was to capture what was going on in front of me without changing it by my presence, something that was not too difficult at Speakers’ Corner, where so many people are carrying cameras".

Thus he captured the Hyde Park Corner regular, Donald Soper, prominent Methodist minister, socialist, pacifist, opponent of blood sports and active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Philip conceded that the Corner was "not part of mainstream political discourse" but it was the "last one surviving of the public debating places in London" and was a reminder of the time before, when "Politics, which doesn't happen anywhere now except in the corridors of power, used to happen on the street". Nevertheless, he still felt, at that time "it still has the buzz generated by the energy and eccentricity of face-to-face argument. I love it".

Philip also said : "The things I like the most are when there's an intelligent discussion going on. I also really like some of the humor, the heckling. There's some very funny heckles you get that are sometimes said quite quietly. There's an elderly Irish guy who's been around for some time and he seems to stand at the edge of crowds and just mutter while people are talking. There's some born again Christian preacher really ranting and raving and he just says things like, "I don't want to be born again, look what happened to me the first time." Really funny lines and he just comes out with them; really quick-thinking people".

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".

In 1982, after six years he left the 'Darkroom' to work as a freelancer and much of his work was commissioned by the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). He recalled that this was one of his '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'.

In the early 1990s he went to South Yorkshire during the big wave of coal pit closures and after revisiting in later years reflected that : '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.

Philip also worked on assignments in the Middle East and in the 1980s worked with health workers in the Middle East in Gaza. He captured a woman waiting for the result of a pregnancy test in a mobile family planning clinic in the village of Kfur Abil in Jordan.

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".

When Philip reflected on Speakers' Corner in the 21st century he said : "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". 

Philip was interviewed about Speaker's Corner for the BBC World Update series in 2015 :

In recent years his visits to Speakers' Corner were less frequent and he asked : '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 


Philip's 'Speakers' Corner 1977-2014' 

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