Ghost Streets of Balsall Heath was a warm up show at The Old Print Works for a forthcoming exhibition of the photographs of American academic and documentary filmmaker Janet Mendelsohn at Ikon Gallery. Over a period of four days (9th-12th July) there were various talks and short films that tied in with the photographs on display. I first heard about it from my WI meeting where we were treated to a talk about the exhibition from its curator Kieran Connell prior to the launch.
Both in the talk at my WI meeting and the talk at the launch night Kieran Connell (pictured above) informed us that the photos were discovered last year during the 50th anniversary celebrations for Birmingham University’s cultural studies department. Between 1967 and 1969 Mendelsohn shot many reels of film on the streets and bomb-sites of Balsall Heath as part of a photo essay for her studies at the then newly established Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies.
Balsall Heath at the time was an area affected by increasing immigration, prostitution and ongoing poverty. Shortly after Mendelsohn’s photographs were taken the area underwent a process of slum clearance. Although they weren’t on display at The Old Print Works we were told that much of Mendelsohn’s work focused on sex workers both at work and in a domestic setting with their families. After a period of researching following the discovery of a Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies publication featuring one of Mendelsohn’s photographs Kieran Connell was able to contact Mendelsohn directly and she sent over a box containing 100 photographs many of which featured sex workers and around 3000 negatives which documented the area at a time of significant change. I found it fascinating to learn of the access to her subjects that Mendelsohn had. This may be they saw her as an outsider being an American whereas if she had been a young lady from Birmingham they may have been more wary of her intentions.
This pop up exhibition showed a selection of Mendelsohn’s images alongside work by Dylan Waldron, Mike Jee and Phyllis Nicklin, a 1980s project where Tindal Street School pupils photographed their neighbourhood, and a map where people could add their own stories and images. It was interesting to learn that the venue we were in was once a hairpin factory. There was also a talk with Dan Burwood from Some Cities.
Despite the fact my WI group is based in Balsall Heath and my dad lived in there until he was seven I didn’t know much of the history of the area, I couldn’t believe that people were forced to live in dwellings that were not fit for habitation. Yet looking at many of the images here the children looked happy with their lot despite looking like street urchins. The photographs were taken during the time of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech however there didn’t appear to be any evidence of racial tension in the images on show.
We were shown the following films on the Saturday courtesy of Flatpack The Geography of Immigrant Housing which looked at Birmingham’s housing policy, with a particular focus on Sparkbrook. A Touch of Eastern Promise about a starry-eyed shop boy who meets his Bollywood idol. Balsall Heath on film which was a selection of local new stories from ATV in the 1960s and 1970s, courtesy of the Media Archive for Central England.
There was also a Q & A with Dylan Waldron who was one the subjects of the ATV local news stories that were shown. We learnt he took photographs of the area which he then used as a basis for his paintings as he wanted to make a record of the area before it changed beyond recognition.
I thought Ghost Streets of Balsall Heath was an interesting snapshot of the area during the sixties. It was great to see this exhibition shown in the area in which the photos were taken as you don’t often find many inner city spaces showing art.
I’m intrigued to find out how the forthcoming Ikon exhibition will deal with the issues of whether or not to use the sex workers real names alongside their image as it’s possible that some of their descendants may still live in the city and may not be aware of their relatives past occupation. I believe that there will also be a symposium alongside the exhibition discussing the importance of Mendelsohn’s work.
Here are some of my favourite images from Ghost Streets of Balsall Heath.
The exhibition Janet Mendelsohn will take place at Ikon Gallery 27th January until 3rd April 2016