Black Lives Matter has underlined the crucial role played by black photographers. Eight British leaders (including Birmingham-based Vanley Burke) in their field to pick a favourite image from their archives – and explain why it’s so important to them – via The Guardian

Out-riders head the African Liberation Day rally, 1977. Vanley Burke.

Out-riders head the African Liberation Day rally, 1977. Vanley Burke.

Caroline Molloy, Senior Lecturer in Photography at Coventry University, reviews Vanley Burke: Photographing Birmingham (1968 – 2011) at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

On display in the Bridge Gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery are thirty 16×20” black and white photographs by Vanley Burke. Originally selected and grouped together by Burke and curator Lynda Morris for the ‘By the Rivers of Birminam’ retrospective exhibition at Mac in 2012, they were recently acquired by the Collecting Birmingham project, run by Birmingham Museums Trust, which aims to give better visibility to black history; an area which has historically been under-represented. Counteracting negative representations of black people in the main-stream press, Burke’s empathetic eye has documented the history of his community, the black community of Handsworth in Birmingham, for fifty years. This exhibition presents a wide selection of Burke’s work, that gives a taster of his broader practice, spanning from the late 1960s to the present day. The photographs are curated in thematic groupings along the gallery walls, under the titles: Childhood and Education, Crowds Communities and Faith, Life and Every-day, Portraits of Influential Men & Women and Power & Protest. Alongside the photographs, there is a video interview playing, between Burke and Lynda Morris. Watching this video is an important part of the exhibition experience. It is crucial viewing for the audience, in order to situate the political and social context of Burke’s photographs.


Ivy House Pub, Soho Road, 1987. Vanley Burke.

All of Burke’s photographs have a political edge, some more overtly than others. They succeed in envisaging the conversation around Diasporic cultural identity, captured by Stuart Hall* in the late 1980s. Burke does this by documenting the political, historical and cultural intersection of place, in this instance in Birmingham from the late 1960s onwards. For example, his 1970s portrait of Wilfred, the young black boy in the park with his bike, on which a Union Jack flag flies, cuts across political arguments around identity and belonging. Coupled with Wilfred’s portrait, are Burke’s Protest and Power, reportage photographs, that document the Handsworth riots which were in protest to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. Burke’s photographs are a remarkable visual evidence of the Jamaican Diaspora. Collectively they document the ordinary, extra-ordinary and politics of everyday life in the Diasporic Jamaican community in Birmingham over the past 50 years.

Young men on a see-saw in Handsworth Park, 1984. Vanley Burke.

It is good to note the public prominence of Burke’s photographs, in relation to the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush, which brought to Britain the first wave of migration from British Commonwealth countries. However, as a critical contributor to the visual archives of Birmingham, it would be good to see a more in-depth presentation of Burke’s work on permanent display in BMAG. I made a special trip to see this work and was surprised to find no printed literature about his practice, and being unfamiliar with the layout of the Museum, I needed to ask for directions three times, before I found the Bridge Gallery. This is an important exhibition to see, that would benefit from better visibility.

*Hall, S. (1984) Reconstruction works: Images of Post War Black Settlement, in Ten8, 16: 2-9.

Vanley Burke: Photographing Birmingham (1968 – 2011) can be seen in The Bridge Gallery, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 1 July 2018.


Caroline Molloy, Senior Lecturer in Photography at Coventry University, reviews Vanley Burke: Photographing Birmingham (1968 – 2011) at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Pete James © Brian Griffin

We have been extraordinarily saddened by the death this week of Pete James, a curator and researcher of enormous talent and influence within the field of photography, both within the West Midlands and far beyond.

Pete worked for 26 years at the Library of Birmingham to establish its internationally recognised photography collection, a position which allowed him to commission and develop projects with a wide range of world-class artists and photographers on site and at other galleries around the country.

A handful of the very many artists and collaborators Pete worked with over the years pay tribute to his generosity, dedication, achievements and the legacy his work leaves behind.


Pete James © Brian Griffin

Stuart Whipps

Pete James was an exceptional man. The efforts it took to build an internationally recognised collection of photography, working in a provincial and often precarious context, would be more than enough to warrant the huge respect everybody had for him. But actually, what Pete did was much more than that. He bought the collection to life. He did this through countless exhibitions, publications, commissions, residencies and he did this because he believed in people.

This outpouring of respect has been equalled by an outpouring of love and that comes from the way Pete did all of this. Always with a dedication to making things the best they could be but never at the expense of a personal investment in everybody involved in the project. He wanted to share the work with everybody and he wanted everybody to take a share in it, to have a stake in it.

I spent some time looking back over my emails with Pete this week. Two things stood out:

He always made a joke. Sometimes they were funny.

He never said no.

Pete supported me not long after I graduated by giving me some money from the library budget to buy some film and pay for developing costs. It was a modest amount but for me at that time, it was everything. It’s not dramatic to say that meeting Pete changed my life. Life with him not around will be a change again. For those of us who were lucky to work with him, his exceptional legacy goes someway to easing the pain of this change.


Brian Homer

The new Library of Birmingham opened in September 2013 with a festival which included three days of Self Portraits. Prior to the opening Pete had commissioned me, Timm Sonnenschein and Graham Peet (then of The Public) to create 1000 Self Portraits for the opening and these were displayed on the huge screens in the lending area and can often still be seen.

We worked closely with Pete in the run up to the opening including consultation with the development team to get the screen specification sorted. Pete was a delight to work with – straightforward, caring and he negotiated the inevitable bureaucracy with a wry smile but a positive attitude.

But before this commission he always had a keen interest in the Handsworth Self Portrait that I had done in 1979 with Derek Bishton and John Reardon.

When Ten.8 photography magazine closed in the early 1990s, holding a range of exhibition material, he brokered the joint purchase of the original HSP prints by the Birmingham Central Library and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

Pete deserves enormous credit for this resurgence of Self Portrait work and it’s is so sad that we will not be able to work together as planned in Multistory’s Blast Festival in 2019 – marking 40 years since Handsworth Self Portrait. This is just a small part of his impact on photography in the UK and there are many other who will have similar stories to tell. His presence on the photography scene will be greatly missed.


Pete James at the Library of Birmingham. Image courtesy Faye Claridge

Faye Claridge

Pete James was exceptional and I’m so grateful to have known and worked with him.

Reflecting back I can hardly believe we first met almost 15 years ago and that his quiet support was so generously available over all that time. Always open to new ideas and keen to promote innovation, he took risks in loaning me archive materials, gave me early platforms to talk at conferences, nominated me for awards, was a catalyst for the major Kern Baby commission and secured my works for perpetuity in the Library of Birmingham collections.

His support extended way beyond library interests and I’ll never forget the dedication he showed when he and daughter Nola slogged across Shropshire on erratic public transport just to be part of the Weighty Friend intervention.

The lasting benefits of feeling supported like that cannot be measured and I’m incredibly grateful to him, and to his family for sharing him even when they knew his health and energy was limited. My thoughts are with them all now.


Vanley Burke

It is with deep deep sadness that I heard of the death of a friend, one who has played a major part in my personal life and my photographic career.

His passion for photography was second to none, from his position as head of photography at Library of Birmingham he reached out to many academic, established and aspiring photographers helping to shape their career.

He opened up the city’s photographic archive and added new material making it more representative of the city’s diverse cultures. He was always traveling, writing, giving lectures on different aspects of the archive but more often on his passion which was the work of Sir Benjamin Stone. I was looking forward to catching up next when we would be in conversation at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (Who Is Birmingham), part of Collecting Birmingham.

Pete James you will be sadly missed. My condolences to the family, Heather, Nola, Evan – stay strong.



We have been extraordinarily saddened by the death this week of Pete James, a curator and researcher of enormous talent and influence within the field of photography within the West Midlands and far beyond. Some of the artists and collaborators he worked with pay tribute.