If you’ve been reading my blog from the start, you’ll remember Jason Scott Tilley and his ‘People of India’ work, which was honestly crazy. Jason came back in to have a chat with us about his ‘Imagine Hillfields’ body of work. This is really interesting if you like archive, history or portraiture.
So to start with Jason gave us some fascinating history points about Coventry, and not being originally from here, I found them really interesting and I want to research more into them. Firstly, there was almost a wall around Coventry city during the medieval period. You would sleep outside the wall and then pay to come in. Jason mentioned that you can still see some of the gate houses still standing. During the Second World War, Coventry was heavily bombed. The Hillfields slums were turned into high-rise flats, the ones we see today. This gateway that was present during the medieval time is still here today with immigration. We have hundreds of different cultures all living within one section of Coventry. The important thing to understand about Hillfields is that it goes through different stages of being in destitution and then high employment, back and fourth.
Jason started his project all the way back with the Taylor Brothers Studio, which is opposite Kasbah, if you’re familiar with Coventry. The studio was knocked down in 1972, but this is where you would get your one family portrait taken, a real value to Coventry and photography. The photographs that they produced had beautiful lighting.
When Jason began to do his research into Hillfields, it turns out that John Blakemore had already created a body of work, ‘Hillfields Archive 1964-65’. Therefore Jason created a response to Blakemore’s work. There was also another photographer, Richard Sadler, who also had created an archive around Hillfields, based in 1951. This was one day were Sadler spent the whole day photographing his grandma, very intimately. You can really see the pre-council estate atmosphere and it’s a true representation of one person who was living in this specific location and this specific time.
During the 1960s to 1990’s, Masterji owned a portrait studio within Hillfields. He knew Blakemore, and his work is of portraits of Indians who wanted their skin to appear whiter then it naturally is. He would do this on the negative by adding a pinkish colour. He is known as “The granddad of black portraiture”, a real iconic portrait photographer to know. All of these photographs have created one big archive showing the different periods throughout Hillfields, and real bases for Jason to start his work on. It really begs the question to me of how would you respond to someone else’s work?
The important thing to understand is that the exhibition wasn’t the end. During it and afterwards people became evolved with Jason, telling them their stories and identifying the people. The exhibition was just the start of the project. Social media went crazy, going all the way to Canada and back, and everyone began to talk about Hillfields. Not in the negative way you would a council estate, but the atmosphere of good community times.
Jason started by going back to the same spots where some of the originally photographs were taken, being site specific, for example St Hope Church. He then got involved with conversations with people about their stories. He also documents some of the beautiful streets that we might ignore, such as Cold Chester Street. Jason deliberately created the work in colour, he didn’t want to recreate Blakemore’s work and he also found it reflected the narratives that he heard from the immigrants.
During one stage of the work Jason paid, Nick Stone, a lot of money to edit the images. Stone is a “re-photographer”, meaning he is a retouched and designer. They edited the modern photographs and the past images together to create one image. I really like this idea; you can see how much it’s changed. And for me, these past images were taken years before I was born so it’s really fascinating to me to learn about the history. Jason also had an emotional connection to Hillfields, as that’s where his grandparents are from.
Overall Jason found the project enjoyable, he was able to take images when he fancied as its extremely close, he had three different histories within one place and he could experiment and work in different environments because of the different types of cultures within Hillfields. There wasn’t so much an emotion connection creating this specific archive, just with his grand parents living here, but he did find this aesthetically pleasing and he began to become involved with other peoples narratives. He planned the exhibition around his work, so this is an important factor to remember when creating my own work for my exhibition. Also Coventry has a lot of archives to discover and become involved with, I need to think about this more in detail. Some final points Jason gave that were really helpful was people don’t like there photograph being taken, but if you become known with Hillfields, for example begin sitting in cafes, they become more open to you. Also call them international not diverse.
There is a lot here to research further, but I really like some of the specific points Jason talked about. It’s a good grounding to my future project.
For more info check out http://www.imaginehillfields.org