Continuing with the theme of digital art based on photography I have been considering the work of John Goto, a British artist who extensively uses his own photographs to create montages that represent social and political critiques. However, before looking at his more contemporary work I want to take a step back and review his recently published book, Lover’s Rock (1).
There are a number of reasons why Lover’s Rock is worth reviewing before looking at the work he is better known for. First and foremost it is an important documentary project; in the late seventies Goto was teaching evening classes in photography at the Lewisham Youth Centre and took the opportunity to take portraits of the young British African-Caribbeans who are attending the centre. The result is not only a record of their, often, beautiful young faces but of the hair styles and fashions that dominated the African-Carribbean scene at that time. The title Lover’s Rock refers to a reggae sub-genre born in South London in the mid-seventies that is reputed to be the first home-grown British African-Carribbean musical form.
The portraits are semi-formal; the subjects sit on plastic topped stools in front of a mid-tone paper backdrop, its creases and visible joins speak to the budget available to Goto and the centre. They mostly make strong eye contact, often smile, some look “cool”, a few are a little apprehensive, some confront the camera, but all the young people look relaxed, comfortable in each other’s and Goto’s presence. Goto’s affection for his young friends shines through the series, they are sympathetic, gentle portraits.
The seventies were troubled times, Britain was still coming to terms with immigration, the influx of African-Carribeans after the war had not been fully assimilated into society, surveys conducted in the mid-sixties revealed that four out of five Britons believed too many immigrants had been let into the country (2), the satirical comedy Till Death Do Us Part ran on British television from 1965 to 1975 and the racist views of its main character, Alf Garnet, were widely seen as being representative of the British working class. If the perception of immigrants was generally negative the view of African-Carribbeans was especially so, the era of the West Indian bus driver, which I remember so well as a child, was probably a thing of the past by the mid-seventies; Goto’s subjects are the children of the Windrush (i) generation and they were struggling to find their identity in a hostile environment.
Lola Young in her contextual essay that forms part of the introduction to Lover’s Rock explains the realities of that hostile environment (ii) and recalls that her fears at the time were “fueled by political machinations relating to immigration” (1: p.11); having attracted thousands of Commonwealth immigrants to help rebuild Britain after the war a significant minority of Britons wanted them to return to their “homes” and there was a growing number of MPs who were willing to vocalise those ideas.
Goto’s photographs are therefore taken against a backdrop of racial tension, unemployment, housing discrimination that at times verged upon apartheid, the rise of the Skinheads and their love of “Paki-bashing” and what is now recognised as institutionalised racism in the Metropolitan Police. In the essay that accompanies the book Paul Gilroy points to the active criminalisation of young black people (1: p.15), the rise of political awareness and a form of resistance within the same young black community. If we combine all these factors we can see that the determination of the African Caribbean community to stay in Britain, the provocative language that was prevalent in the right wing press, the rise of fascist and racist groups and the attitude of the establishment and police towards black youths created a toxic culture and an environment where sympathetic politicians, socialist movements, the liberal press and the leaders of the black community were so focussed on the big issues that these ordinary young people and their culture was invisible to both sides.
Goto’s portraits reinstates these young people as individuals, separates them from any statistical data or sweeping statements about racial tension in seventies Britain. When viewed as a study of individualism we are reminded that this is an era when not all youths subscribed to common dress codes. These youngsters are dressed for an evening out and their clothes are wonderfully personal, yes there is a fair amount of knitwear, and plenty of tank tops and polo neck jumpers but the overall impression is smart, stylish and individual. Amongst young white communities the seventies was a period of anti-establishment clothing; the turned-up jeans, bother boots and braces of the skinheads, tight jeans and sparkle for the glam rockers and the continuation of hippie styles with shaggy Afghan coats and west Asian influenced coloured cottons. Yet this group of South Londoners are surprisingly conservative with a few blazers and tailored jackets for the boys and a even some matching suits for the girls.
Perhaps this suggests a community that is still not sure of its place in seventies Britain and is trying to dress to fit-in but by being less rebellious than their white counterparts they continue to set themselves apart. Whether this is a valid observation or not the conservative nature of their clothes means we have to look more closely to find expressions of their African Carribbean culture; and it is there in the carefully tended Afro haircuts, the number of girls wearing a crucifix, the woollen tea cosy hats, head scarfs that will be so familiar to visitors to the Carribbean, a suggestion of Rastafarian colours in hats and badges and the occasional trilby. The overall impression is of a community in transition but whilst it isn’t clear where they have come from or where they are going they are determined to express themselves through their expressions, poses, clothes, hairstyles, jewellery or by holding a joint whilst being photographed.
Goto explains his processes and, to some degree, his intents in a short essay in Lover’s Rock but it reveals little of how he or his subjects viewed the world at the time. It is relevant to note that, as ever, Goto was influenced by European art rather than the documentary style that they now appear to refrence; he specifically mentions “Dutch paintings with their sense of quiet and stillness, in part achieved through the use of a particular kind of light.” (1: p.113). It is therefore all the more intriguing how these photographs have changed in nature over the 33 years between capture and publication; created in the context of European art they represented a perspective of seventies black youth that had no audience, the Battle of Lewisham or the Carnival Riots provided the stereotypes that the press and public were interested in. By 2016 or even 2013 when they were published they have all but lost their reference to Dutch painting and taken on a pure documentary role.
I am tempted to compare photographs to fine wine in that they change their nature as they age but this is an inappropriate comparison because photographs neither improve nor deteriorate but their meaning shifts as time goes by. John Berger discusses the two messages presented by every photograph: “a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning a shock of discontinuity” (5: p88) and it is with this thought in mind that I have looked at Lover’s Rock. We can look at this series and segregate Berger’s two messages; the factuality of these young people ready for their night out and interpret them in he context of their time or we can look at them within a 2016 context and recognise that these individuals were the generation who engaged in the struggle to preserve their cultural identity whilst becoming integrated within a wider society that had shunned their parents. The struggle continues but the clamour to send immigrants “home” has moved on from West Indians to Eastern Europeans; I’m unsure whether we can see this as progress or a continuation of thinly disguised racism.
Notes on Text
(i) The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave all Commonwealth citizens free entry to Britain. It was heavily advertised in the Caribbean with the intent of attracting much needed labour to the UK. In June 1948 the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury bringing 500 Jamaicans determined to build a new life in Britain.
(ii) In August 1976 the Notting Hill Carnival descended into a riot. There had been trouble the year before and the Police had announced that they would be there in force. According to Robert Golden who photographed the event for the Socialist Worker the police at that time “took a consistently heavy-handed approach to any large group of black people” (3). Golden saw the riot start, a young black man started to fight another black youth and the police used it as an excuse to charge the crowd. 100 police and 60 carnival goers needed hospital treatment. The police blamed the incident on “trouble makers” a view not shared by Robert Golden.
In 1977 the National Front, a thinly disguised neo-fascist movement provocatively organised a march through Lewisham where they would be confronted by members of the Socialist Workers Party, other anti-fascist groups and members of the community. According to the Guardian published on the Monday after the march (4) the Metropolitan Police Commissioner assured the Home Secretary that his force were well equipped and prepared to deal with the anticipated violence. By the end of the day 56 police officers were injured, 11 were in hospital and 2014 arrests were made but few if any of these were from the National Front. Their turnout had been surpassingly small and their march was surrounded by a Police phalanx that keep them separated from the anti-front protestors but at one point a section of the march became separated from the main body and what was later to be called the Battle of New Cross Road broke out and raged for 15 minutes; the day ended with a running street battle between the Police and the anti-front protestors that allowed the Police to try out their new riot shields for the first time. The Police came under heavy criticism for not banning the march as both the Mayor and the Bishop of Southwick had requested recognising that it could only end in violence. Sadly it was the precursor of many similar instances.
(1) Goto, John (2013) Lover’s Rock. London:Autograph ABP
(5) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(2) The National Archives (ND) Postwar Immigration (accessed at the National Archives 29.7.16) – http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/brave_new_world/immigration.htm
(3) Phillips, Sarah ( 2015) Robert Golden’s best Photograph: The 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riots (accessed at The Guardian 29.7.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/mar/13/robert-golden-best-photograph
(4) Mackie, Lindsay (1977) The Real Losers in Saturday’s Battle of Lewisham (accessed at The Guardian 29.7.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/century/1970-1979/Story/0,,106928,00.html
The Oxford Culture Review (2013) Lover’s Rock: An Interview with John Goto (accessed at The Oxford Culture Review 26.7.16) – https://theoxfordculturereview.com/2013/12/23/lovers-rock-an-interview-with-john-goto/