©Ingrid Pollard, The Valentine Days, 1891/2017 - INVA New Artist commission, 2017

©Ingrid Pollard, The Valentine Days, 1891/2017 - INVA New Artist commission, 2017

Body In Landscape: An exploration of Black identity and its relationship to Landscape Photography (extract)

Chapter One - Introduction

Taking a photograph is an act of possession, a way of making something visible while simultaneously freezing in place, locking in time [1]

Olivia Laing’s novel The Lonely City translates the isolation and absence of loneliness of city dwelling. Laing moved to New York to pursue avenues that had fallen through; lost and disillusioned, she sought solace through art. In chapter three, Laing analyses the work of gay photographer David Wojnarowicz.

Wojnarowicz photographed lone figures stalking the landscape of 1970s New York, their faces masked by the face of French poet Arthur Rimbaud creating a juxtaposition between past and present. The lone figures in masks are striking and force you to value the relationship between the landscape and the individual. Laing notes that the locations in New York used by Wojnarowicz ‘exerted a power over him’[2] and this feels familiar when analysing Pollard’s work as Pollard visited landscapes that resonated with her experience of being Black and British.

Although different in location and context, Black British photographer Ingrid Pollard has invested her gaze to analysing the black identity and its relationship to the cities and to the English landscape. Pollard is interested in the politicisation of the black body and how this is heightened when the black body is placed in the context of rural England.  A space that has been as resistant and hostile to diaspora presence as the pastoral landscape has mythologised a white, Christian identity, which excludes ‘otherness’ whilst glorifying Britain’s colonial history. 

i. Ingrid Pollard: Early Years

Ingrid Pollard was born in Guyana in 1953, at the age of four Pollard and her family moved to North London. Pollard would familiarise herself with photography by borrowing her father’s 35mm DLR and Kodak Box Brownie camera which she acquired aged 18. Pollard moved to South London in early 1980s and became part of left leaning squatting communities. She settled in Penge, South East London, and took a more focused direction with her photography. What was initially a curiosity soon turned into an act of political activism and a way to document marginalised communities that were forming under Thatcherism. Pollard reflects on this in 2004 in the book Postcards Home:

After leaving home photography became an everyday activity. It was what I did. I took photos all the time, brief moments of life observed around me. I took pictures at the early women’s liberation conferences, the ‘Reclaim the Night’ demonstrations and at the first OWAAD (Organisation of Women of African & Asian Descent) conferences. I took my camera with me everywhere, going to Hereford on a canoeing and walking holiday with the Black Lesbian group for instance. At this time I never imagined myself as an artist; I was documenting the community I was part of, although at the time I would never have put it that way. Taking pictures was a seamless part of belonging – part of finding a home and being at home.[3]

Pollard’s concerns had been centred on political activism and social change and allowed her to find a voice to address her own cultural and political concerns. Before she started her BA at London College of Printing, Pollard began working Lenthall Road, which led to her teaching and running workshops, which became a period of personal and professional development. Pollard was also documenting performances and workshops including a poetry reading by Alice Walker for Spare Rib magazine. Pollard notes of her experience at Lenthall Road:

I taught in community workshops and formal education, where I explored ways of reading images, researching the theory and history of photography. This dovetailed with exhibiting work that I produced from editorial and documentary assignments. I discovered that a synthesis of the autobiographical, the historical and the theoretical allowed me to make work about contemporary life.[4]

Pollard completed her BA (Hons) in Film & Video at London College of Printing in 1985, ten years later completing her MA in Photographic Studies at Derby University in 1995. Over the period between completing her BA and MA, Pollard’s concerns within her photography became more focused on identity and location, specifically the black identity in the English landscape. Pollard was a keen walker and had been going on camping holidays with her family since she was a small child. However, as an adult Pollard noted that her black female identity became more acute and heightened when she was placed in non-city locations.  Pollard also began to question her place in British society in a culture where her heritage and identity was marginalised. Pollard has reflected upon this in her 1992 series Wordsworth Heritage:

Going to the Lake District over the years, collecting postcards, deliberately searching out England’s timeworn countryside ‘the way it’s always been’, searching the postcard-stand for the card that shows a sunny unplanned scene with a black person standing, looking over the hills.[5]

ii. The history of D-Max and Autograph ABP

The 1980s was a fruitful period of activism and artists claiming agency over their collective and individual experiences. The art world was still Eurocentric, white and middle class, and the representation of ethnic minority artists was minimal. To address this imbalance, collectives such as D-Max and Autograph ABP were founded to address the marginalisation of Black artists in the British art scene. The Black Art generation emerged ‘with many new opportunities for Black artists to have their work included in the group exhibitions that frequently took place within galleries and other venues across the country.’[6]

These opportunities were usually a result of a collective response and artists from this generation made a point of finding spaces to exhibit their work. Galleries such as ICA, The Brixton Arts Gallery, Chelsea College of Art and Ikon Gallery showcased artists such as Pollard and her contemporaries including Keith Piper, Donald Rodney, Lubaina Himid and Chila Burman, for example. D-Max was a collective of artists who were brought together by Eddie Chambers, who curated an exhibition of up and coming artists at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in 1987, and this exhibition featured Ingrid Pollard’s series Pastoral Interludes. As Liz Wells notes in her book Photography: A Critical Introduction, Britain’s political landscape gave rise to artists to find safe spaces to discuss their diverse and multifaceted experience, Wells comments that:

In the early 1980s context of Thatcherism, and inner-city tension, key exhibitions and initiatives included Reflections of the Black Experience (curated by Monika Baker, Brixton Art Gallery, 1986); as a primary documentary show, it offered evidence not only of diverse black experience in Britain but also the presence of good black photographers.[7]

The Association of Black Photographers, which later became Autograph ABP was formed in London in 1988 as a photography specific collective. Pollard was one of the founding members, and like D-Max, Autograph wanted to create a platform for their creative endeavours as marginalised artists. They sought to claim a space for Black British photographers to support their practice and create a legacy for themselves and their contemporaries. Today Autograph ABP is still based in London and runs a photographic archive, programme of exhibitions, workshops and talks to promote the discourse around photography, race, identity, gender and representation. Autograph ABP regularly curate exhibitions at INIVA. INIVA is situated in Shoreditch, East London and was formed in 1994 ‘under the leadership of renowned academic Professor Stuart Hall, INIVA is a non-profit organisation based in East London. It has established itself as a pioneering arts organisation in the artistic environment in the UK and beyond.’[8]

Recently Autograph ABP staged Making Jamaica: Photography From The 1890s at INIVA, an exhibition of archival images of Jamaica from Scottish company Valentine & Sons. These photographs from 1890s to 1920s were taken to promote Jamaica as a place to holiday as well as a place of investment. The exhibition featured a commission by Pollard called Valentine’s Day 1891/2017. This commission was produced in response to the archival footage and featured five large-scale prints where Pollard applied her hand tinted print technique (initially used in the Pastoral Interludes series). This commission also marked the 30th anniversary of Pastoral Interludes. Pollard has commented on the process of creating this commission; ‘looking at the images for many hours as I tinted them by hand, I felt caught in the aura of the photographs and identified with the people in them.’[9]

[1] O. Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2017), p.109

[2] O. Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2017), p. 100

[3] I. Pollard, Postcards Home (London: Autograph, 2004), p.8

[4] I. Pollard I, Postcards Home (London: Autograph, 2004), p.9

[5] I. Pollard I, Postcards Home (London: Autograph, 2004), p.58

[6] E. Chambers, Black Artists in British Art: A History since 1950’s (London: I.B Taurus, 2014), p.105

[7] L. Well, Photography: A Critical Introduction (Oxon: Routledge, 1996), p.283

[8] INIVA website, About Us, Who we are, http://www.iniva.org/about_us/about_iniva/who_we_are

[9] Autograph – ABP, Exhibitions, Making Jamaica, http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/making-jamaica