Earlier this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), I curated an exhibition of artwork at mac Birmingham. It was a fairly stressful experience. Admittedly, this was partly because at the time I really didn’t know all that much about contemporary art. But it was also stressful because of the subject matter. It turned out that finding ways of communicating ‘counter hegemony’, ‘conjuncture’ or any of the Centre’s other famed theoretical concepts to non-academic audiences through art was even harder than it sounds. Who knew?
In the end, we did manage bring together both established and emerging artists whose diverse practices spoke brilliantly to the ongoing significance of the Centre’s work. But throughout the curatorial process I kept returning to this image (pictured), of a south-Asian man posing beneath an advert for Hunt’s ‘tropical lemon’ drink and the slogan, ‘drink Hunt’s, taste paradise’.
The photograph was featured on the front cover of the Centre’s 1969 annual report and, in a single image, seemed to encapsulate what cultural studies at Birmingham was at this stage all about. The Hunt’s advert speaks to the Centre’s early interest in the mass media, for example, as well as what would later become the centrality of gender and feminism. The figure in the foreground, and the flyposter over his right shoulder advertising a Jamaica 5th anniversary dance, alludes to the Centre’s interest in race and the cultures of Britain’s growing immigrant population. Finally, the inner-city backdrop is suggestive of a focus on class that to a greater or lesser degree would inform the work of the Centre throughout its existence.
There was some contextual information about the photograph to be found inside the annual report. According to a credit, it was taken by Janet Mendelsohn as part of a ‘photo-essay on Balsall Heath’ – an inner-city area of Birmingham that in the 1950s and 1960s became a key site of settlement for immigrants from the Caribbean and south Asia. I had never heard of Mendelsohn, but some further digging in the CCCS archive – which we had established at the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham as part of the wider project on CCCS – told me she was a part-time student at the Centre, having arrived on a scholarship from the United States. Her aim was to explore how photography could be used as ‘a tool for cultural analysis’.
I wanted to know more, so I did what all lazy contemporary historians do – I asked Google. Nothing. I got in touch with some of Mendelsohn’s Centre peers, which eventually yielded an email address. Finally, after many emails into what seemed like a wilderness, there was a response from Janet. It was brief, but exciting: ‘I would love it if you could take over the collection of all my images about Balsall Heath’. We talked some more and eventually a package arrived in my office from the US. It contained a hundred prints of Mendelsohn’s photographs of Balsall Heath, around 3,000 negatives and an envelope containing the hand-written transcripts of interviews that Mendelsohn had conducted with her subjects. My jaw hit the ground.
It was the quality, as well as the quantity of the material that was remarkable. Mendelsohn’s photographs document everyday encounters between African-Caribbean, Irish and south-Asian immigrants in Balsall Heath. Frenetic street scenes are interspersed with more intimate shots from inside the area’s pubs, cafés and living rooms. But at this point, Balsall Heath was also infamous as the city’s largest ‘red light’ district, and a place of work for some 200 sex workers. Mendelsohn’s photographs also offer an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of these women, a portrait of their domestic arrangements, personal relationships and everyday experiences.
I am in the process of writing about some of these themes in much greater detail, but as well as the subjects of race, immigration and sex work, it is clear that Mendelsohn’s photographs also offer a way of thinking about the early practice of cultural studies, the relationship between academics and their subjects, the changing face of the post-war inner-city, class and, as my colleague Matt Houlbrook might put it, ‘self-fashioning’.
In the end, we did manage to include some of Mendelsohn’s work in the CCCS exhibition – including the ‘Hunt’s’ image. But it became apparent that, aside from a small selection that was published in a now-defunct university magazine in 1968, the vast majority of Mendelsohn’s photographs have never before been seen in public. They are now accessible as part of the CCCS archive at the Cadbury Research Library. But my colleague Matthew Hilton and I have just received an AHRC grant that will allow us to give them a much wider audience.
From May 2015, in partnership with a number of local organisations, we will begin a project around the Mendelsohn archive. This will include discussion events at the Library of Birmingham and Ort, a café based in the heart of the Balsall Heath community; a series of workshops asking local residents to produce a contemporary photographic response to the Mendelsohn archive; an outdoor, ‘pop up’ exhibition in Balsall Heath; and, in January 2016, a major public exhibition of Mendelsohn’s photographs at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. We hope that we will be able to give this previously hidden archive the audience it really deserves.