Mendelsohn’s Balsall Heath

An article in The Guardian brought to my attention the work of American photographer Janet Mendelsohn, a Harvard graduate who in 1967 came to study with Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart at the ground-breaking Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Forgotten for years, her work which she made use of photography as “a tool for cultural analysis” in a multi-racial area undergoing a radical transformation through immigration and dire poverty, was rediscovered when Kieran Connell, who was curating a show for the 50th anniversary of the centre, became obsessed by a photograph of hers on the cover of its 1969 annual report.

It took considerable detective work by Connell to find out more about the photographer, but when he finally managed to contact her sent back the request “Please take these photographs off my hands” and sent him a large box with several hundred prints and 3,000 negatives.

Some of these were from a project in the red-light area of Varna Road in Balsall Heath, and it is this series which is the basis of the newspaper article, as well as a forthcoming show at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham (PDF press release here) and a free symposium at the end of January at Birmingham University with speakers including Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, artist Mishka Henner, UCL History Professor Catherine Hall and curator and photographic historian Pete James.

One classmate of Mendelsohn’s at Harvard was film-maker Dick Rogers, (1944-2002) who also went to study in Birmingham with Hall and Hoggart for two years, after which he returned to Harvard to study on a Visual Education programme where he met his future wife Susan Meiselas.

Mendelsohn worked with Rogers on his first film, Quarry (1970). His best-known work, Pictures from a Revolution (1991) retraces Meiselas’s work on her photo essay ‘Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979‘. In an earlier film, 226-1690 (1994) he used recordings left on his phone answering machine from her when there including one with a gunshot in the background.

Some of Mendelsohn’s work was shown last July in ‘The Ghost Streets of Balsall Heath‘ at The Old Print Works, Moseley Road, Balsall Heath as a part of the Flat Pack Festival.

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