Vanley Burke: An Inglan Story, an Inglan History

Vanley Burke was one of the first British-based Black people to distinguish themselves in the field of photography. As such, he occupies a central and elevated position in the history of Black photography in Britain. Born in Jamaica in 1951, Burke came to England in 1965, one of the ‘sent for' children mentioned earlier. He received his first camera as a present for his tenth birthday, perhaps little knowing where such a requested present would lead him. For Burke, "Photography started to develop as a means of looking at people and how they lived." To this end, he became responsible for producing many highly engaging photographs of Birmingham's Caribbean communities, through the course of the later decades of the 20th century. These photographs – depicting Black people at work, at play, at church, on the streets, and in their homes – have become key documents chronicling the lives of Black people in the country's second largest city. Through these images we can chart the development, importance and growing confidence of Black Britain. In Burke's photographs we see elderly Black men playing dominoes in a local pub, groups of young people hanging out in a park, baptisms, weddings, and burials. We see confrontations between the police and members of the Black community, people dancing, portraits of college graduates, and many other things illustrative of a vibrant, confident, and multifaceted community of Black British people, some of whose Brummie accents are laced with a Jamaican twang.

Consider, if you will, one of Burke's great crowd scene photographs, taken in Handsworth Park at an Africa Liberation Day rally in the late 1970s. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Burke has made the focus of the photograph not the people addressing the multitude, but the multitude itself. In this sense, though the focus of the gathered throng's attention is located somewhere beyond, or outside of, the right side of the image, Burke chooses to make the attentive crowd the subject of his picture. To successfully photograph large numbers of people gathered together in one place is one of the most difficult of tasks for a photographer. And yet, within this image, Burke produced a compelling and remarkably cogent document of a particularly culturally and politically charged moment in the history of Black Britain. The majestic, panoramic photograph effortlessly evokes Bob Marley's sentiment, expressed in his challenge and admonition to the Black people of the world, to 'Wake Up and Live'. Within the song, Marley declares – as Burke's photograph does – that "we're more than the sand of the sea shore, we're more than number". The mass of blessed yout in the photograph are indeed "more than number", and they nearly all – to a man, to a woman – betray about them or their person some evidence of the influence of Rastafari. Dreadlocks abound, as do tams, wraps and numerous other signs of Rasta. As with all great photographs of crowd scenes, we see not so much a crowd, or a multitude, but a group of individuals. And in beholding or appraising individual people "more than number", we are able to consider such things as the facial expressions, body language, and clothing that make each of these people distinctive, particular, and in one or two instances, idiosyncratic or eccentric.

Burke has what amounts to an extraordinary ability to frame his subjects and compose his photographs. Within so many of his images, composition is the defining element of the picture's greatness and success. The picture of the youtman on the seesaw is a case in point. Burke's remarkable and quite exceptional ability to frame and compose his subjects is a reflection of the respect he has for them. And it is this sense of respect that leads us as viewers to look, as if with fresh or new eyes, at the people he photographs. In this regard, one of my favourite photographs of Burke's is his wonderful portrait of a woman - the proprietor perhaps - behind the counter of a Caribbean takeaway. Amongst Black people, tales are legendary of the oftentimes surly and near-grudgeful service we receive in Caribbean takeaways, particularly if we are not immediately known to those serving us. But here we see that Burke has, improbably perhaps, put the proprietor at her ease, and she smiles for the camera, a slight smile, but nevertheless a smile born of a wonderful combination of quiet self-confidence and service to her clientele.

The full version of the above text An Inglan Story, An Inglan History, appeared in the catalogue accompanying By the Rivers of Birminam, a retrospective exhibition by Jamaican-born British photographer Vanley Burke, held at mac (Midlands Arts Centre), Birmingham, 22 September – 18 November 2012.