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Janet Mendelsohn

Varna Road

27 January — 3 April 2016

Ikon hosts the largest exhibition to date of photographs by American academic and documentary filmmaker Janet Mendelsohn.

Part of a ‘photo-essay’ Mendelsohn made as a student at the University of Birmingham during 1967–69, the photographs depict everyday life in the inner-city district of Balsall Heath, focusing in particular on a young woman referred to as Kathleen, with whom Mendelsohn formed a close relationship. By using photography as “a tool for cultural analysis”, she provides a unique insight into a transforming community, shaped by increasing immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia, and affected by ongoing poverty-related issues.

Enrolled as a student at the newly-established Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), Mendelsohn was encouraged by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart – then deputy and director of CCCS – to explore ways in which photography could be used in field research. The resulting archive of 3,000 photographs and interviews are now held at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. Mendelsohn’s photographs document a working class district in flux. The area was about to undergo a relentless process of slum clearance and Balsall Heath would soon become unrecognisable with many of its streets, including the infamous Varna Road, ceasing to exist. Busy outdoor scenes are interspersed with others inside pubs, cafés and living rooms whilst portraits of individuals, usually contemplative if not melancholic, are counterbalanced by a strong emphasis on family and gatherings of friends, making do and getting by.

During the late 1960s Balsall Heath was Birmingham’s largest red light district, a place of work for some 200 prostitutes. Mendelsohn provides an extraordinary insight into these women’s lives, their domestic arrangements and personal relationships as well as the nature of their profession. We see women in their bedroom windows soliciting passers-by, and poignantly, another standing, waiting in the street – her vulnerability heightened by her silhouette and long sunset shadow thrown onto a pavement made shiny with rain.

Kathleen and her friends are in a dark uncomfortable place, but Mendelsohn’s work does not slip into sentimentality. Other images make it clear that she finds Kathleen’s tenacity and defiance remarkable; also the love she has for her children, her sense of responsibility as well as her sense of fun. Photographs show her in hospital, just after the birth of her second child, with the father Salim, a young Asian man; and at other times at home with her children. There is no suggestion of pity being requested, instead a kind of fatalism that equates to ‘live and let live’.

A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition including texts by Kieran Connell, Queen’s University Belfast; Matthew Hilton, University of Birmingham; and Val Williams, curator and author, plus Mendelsohn’s interviews with Kathleen and other residents of Balsall Heath. Visit Ikon’s online shop for the full range of Ikon’s catalogues and limited editions.

This exhibition is organised in collaboration with University of Birmingham and Queen’s University Belfast. Supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Exterion Media, The Photography Show, Flatpack Projects, Library of Birmingham and Ort Gallery.

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