Meeting called to resist plans by Westminster City Council to close the 510 Community Centre in Paddington, 1978. It's a remnant of a much more radical age, says Philip Wolmuth. Image © Philip Wolmuth.
Photoworks Westminster started life in 1976 as the North Paddington Community Darkroom (NPCD), one of a number of arts groups that were part of the upsurge of grassroots activism of the period. Based in the 510 Centre, a busy meeting place and advice centre on the Harrow Road, NPCD taught camera and darkroom skills to local residents, and supported the campaigns and day-to-day activities of local community organisations.
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. The aim was to empower local residents by making available knowledge, skills and resources, by promoting cooperative ways of working, and by encouraging a critical approach to conventional forms of representation.
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 vibrant multicultural population of our run-down corner of the City of Westminster faced a catalogue of social problems, with appalling housing conditions, racism, and high levels of unemployment the most obvious. Community relations with the police, “institutionally racist” in today’s parlance, were extremely bad. In our makeshift, three-enlarger black-and-white darkroom, we worked closely with many of the groups based at the 510 Centre, running classes, putting together laminated displays and tape-slide shows, and building a photographic archive of local issues and events. Photography came to be seen as an integral part of group activities.
Much of the picture taking for exhibitions and publications was done by NPCD workers (by 1979 there were two) and a small number of the local residents who attended our classes. But the way the work finally appeared was under collective control, and open to instant feedback from those who featured in it.
Similar work was going on across the country. NPCD learnt from the pioneering photography project at the Blackfriars Settlement, set up by Paul Carter. Also in London, at Tower Hamlets Arts Project, David Hoffman was experimenting with a portable darkroom kit, while in Brixton the Union Place collective provided resources for both photography and print. Walworth and Aylesbury Community Arts Trust, meanwhile, used photography in its work with residents on a sprawling estate in Southwark.
A number of other groups flourished for a while and then faded, and outside the capital there were projects in Birmingham, Saltley, Liverpool, Telford and other towns and cities. The Media Workshop in Southampton still exists. Funding came from a variety of sources. The Arts Council created a Community Arts Panel to finance some of the new initiatives and NPCD received grants from the panel, from the Gulbenkian Foundation, and from local trusts.
Community photography was not only part of the wave of grassroots activism of the time, it was also part of a concurrent politicisation of photography itself. “Socially concerned” photography had been around since at least the days of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, but the 1970s saw a more radical critique of the role of the photographer and the use of photographic imagery. The Half Moon Photography Workshop in Bethnal Green, and its offshoot, Camerawork magazine, was hugely influential. Camerawork began publication in 1976 with an inaugural feature by the late Jo Spence entitled The Politics of Photography, and went on to examine and promote the work of a wide range of politically engaged documentary photographers. In March 1979, the entire issue of the quarterly was devoted to "Photography in the Community”.
The political and economic environment in which these developments took place began to change with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. The 510 Centre, in which NPCD was based, had already come under fire from the new Shirley Porter-led regime at Westminster City Council, which had threatened to withdraw funding unless groups using the centre refrained from criticising the policies of public authorities and parties. Now the idea that publicly funded community organisations could engage in “political” activity was regarded as unacceptable by both local and national government.
By the mid-1980s, this period of radicalism had begun to fade. On the photographic front, Camerawork had shifted focus, devoting much of the output in its later issues to lengthy and obscure academic discussions of semiotics. It closed down in 1985. In the real world, the failure of the miners’ strike led to a widespread demoralisation on the left, and Margaret Thatcher’s promotion of aggressive individualism was completely at odds with ideals of collective action and empowerment that underpinned the community arts movement and the photography projects that formed part of it.
These changes, together with major cuts in public spending, had a big impact on what community photography projects were able to do, and on the money available to finance them. In London this was mitigated for a while by Ken Livingstone’s GLC, but the changes began an unwelcome trend that has continued to the present day. Grants became increasingly prescriptive and tied to “output”. How many people were we reaching? Were they the right, government-prioritised people? How many of them moved into mainstream education or got jobs as a result? This intensified with the advent of New Labour in 1997, mirroring the narrowing focus of the new National Curriculum in schools, and of adult education. Funding was available for boosting “employability” or for crime reduction (“keeping young people off the streets”), but education for its own sake was (and still is) increasingly seen as an unaffordable luxury.
Many projects closed down, but NPCD decided on a policy of “adapt and survive”. The 510 Centre closed in 1987, and NPCD moved first to self-contained premises nearby, and later to a purpose-built, wheelchair-accessible teaching darkroom and studio in Marylebone, with a change of name to reflect the move out of North Paddington. During this period our work shifted away from engagement with activist groups and focused instead on two areas – making our open access darkroom available to local residents, and developing one-off, time-limited educational projects with schools and established community organisations across the borough.
Photoworks Westminster (as we were now known) devised projects with local primary schools, youth clubs, ethnic minority community organisations, and with support groups for the elderly, the homeless, and for people with mental health problems. These took the form of eight or 10 weekly sessions, culminating in an exhibition of participants’ work. We gradually became an informal provider of a service that complemented those of the statutory authorities.
Our work was well regarded, by both participants and funders, and attracted recognised photographers as freelance tutors. Recent projects included assisted portrait and pinhole workshops run by Cordelia Weedon, Anthony Luvera and Sarah Ainslie. At the same time, progressive digitisation elsewhere rendered our darkroom a sought-after rarity. However, the nature of the groups we worked with necessarily meant our work was labour-intensive: “outputs” were relatively small. The Community Arts Panel is long gone and part of our finance for many years came from Westminster Council. As has become common across the voluntary sector, this was not a grant, but an output-specified contract for the provision of services. This was matched with time-limited grants from trusts.
When our three-year contract came up for renewal earlier this year, we were unable to find the requisite sources of “match” funding. Trusts that had already financed our programmes were unwilling to renew their grants. Virtually all the community photography projects of 30 years ago have disappeared, but their influence can still be felt. The motivating impulse – to enable “ordinary” people to represent themselves and to take a critical approach to their representation in the mass media – survives in the practice of those few projects that remain, of some that are more recent in origin, and in individual photographers engaged in community-based collaborations.
Philip Wolmuth is a freelance photojournalist. In 1976 he set up North Paddington Community Darkroom, where he worked until 1982. The photographs shown here are taken from his book That was then, this is now: Community action in North Paddington 1975-2008.
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