Tuesday 6 April 2021

Charlie Phillips: why did it take so long for one of Britain's greatest photographers to get his due?

 His photographs of Muhammad Ali and Jimi Hendrix sold around the world. Cartier-Bresson was a fan, while Fellini liked him so much he put him in a film. Yet in the UK, Phillip’s work was ignored for decades

Charlie Phillips never planned to become a photographer. His childhood dream was to be an opera singer, or a naval architect. But then a camera fell into his lap. It was 1958. The 14-year-old had arrived from Jamaica two years earlier and was living in Notting Hill, west London, at that time the first port of call for many Caribbean immigrants. The area was also a destination for African American soldiers stationed at nearby military bases, who didn’t feel so welcome in central London’s white venues.

Charlie Phillips: There has been a m missing section in our history’. Photograph: Aliyah Otchere/ The Guardian

“On Saturdays, if you had a basement flat, you’d move the furniture to one side and make a party,” says Phillips. “And these GIs used to bring their rhythm-and-blues records and cigarettes. They’d come to have a good time and, you know, dance … and the young Afro-Caribbean women would come to meet them.” Phillips’s family often befriended these GIs. “One of them got legless one night and couldn’t get back to his base, so he had to borrow 15 shillings from my dad. He left behind a Kodak Retinette camera, but he never came back to pick it up. So I kept it.”

That camera became Phillips’s passport to a career that took him across Europe and into contact with notable figures including Jimi Hendrix, Federico Fellini, Muhammad Ali and Henri Cartier-Bresson. At the same time, Phillips was one of the few people minded and able to document London’s African-Caribbean community. His images, many of which were gathered together in the book Notting Hill in the Sixties, capture the richness and complexity of the landscape. 

Children play on litter-filled streets; young Black people show off their fashionable attire outside rundown houses.

A group of children on Basing Street in west London, 1969. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

This was an era marked by regular racist assaults on the African-Caribbean community, and the 1958 Notting Hill “race riots”. Phillips’s images show hand-scrawled adverts for rooms to let, spelling out “No coloured”, and graffiti on walls reading “Keep Britain white”. But his work also captures black and white Londoners socialising together, laughing, drinking, kissing. One of his best-known photographs, known as Notting Hill Couple, has come to symbolise that spirit. Taken at a party in 1967, it depicts a young Black man with his arm around a young white woman. Both look into the camera with serious expressions that could be interpreted as hopeful, innocent, perhaps even defiant.

Phillips chronicled African-Caribbean funerals in London over several generations, in all their passion, style and sartorial exuberance. This was his own community, and his images speak of an insider’s intimacy and familiarity. “As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t been given a proper platform to show our culture, our side of the story,” he says. “It’s not Black history; this is British history, whether you like it or not. And we’ve been sidestepped. I feel that personally.”

Portobello Road in the late 60s. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

Phillips has good reason to feel excluded. As well as that fateful camera, his career has been shaped to some extent by British attitudes towards race. Like many Windrush-era immigrants, his family did not come to Britain because they were poor but because they were invited. In Jamaica, his parents ran a business making tourist souvenirs, employing six other people. “The mother country called, so we answered,” he says. “But we never had any welcoming party; we had to fend for ourselves.” The now-gentrified Notting Hill was “a ghetto” at that time, populated not only by Caribbean but also Irish and Hungarian immigrants. Phillips’s first accommodation was a boarding house in Blenheim Crescent, where he slept three to a bed with other recent arrivals. Later, his parents would move into a room, then two rooms in a shared house.

At school, Phillips’s mostly white classmates were less hostile than curious, he says. “They would call me ‘Curly’ and sometimes feel your hair. There were rumours that we had tails on our backs.” Phillips was surprised by their ignorance. “I’d say: ‘I’m from Jamaica.’ They’d say: ‘What part of Africa is that?’ The British empire was all over the world, and yet some of the local population was so ignorant about the colonies. It was unbelievable.” His teachers were equally surprised that Phillips knew how to read, write, draw, do geometry and even sing Ave Maria in Latin. He had a good voice, he says. He also had a fascination with ships; in his free time he would take the bus to Victoria Docks to watch them. But as a Black child in 50s Britain, Phillips’s dreams of designing ships or singing opera were not considered realistic. “They laughed at me. The youth employment officer said: ‘Why don’t you get a job with London Transport? That’s more security. Or join the RAF or get a job with the post office.’”

Notting Hill Couple, 1967. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

To pass the evenings in his family’s one-bedroom flat, Phillips began to take an interest in the camera. With money from his paper round, he bought a do-it-yourself photography book from the local chemist. He began developing his prints at night in the bath after everyone else had gone to bed. His first photographs were of friends and family in the neighbourhood, who would pay for a photo to send to relatives back home. “I used to take ‘snaps’ of people,” he says. “We never called them ‘photographs’ in them days. It was just for fun, as an amateur, because we only thought we’d spend five years in England.” After leaving school in 1960, he bought a better camera and continued his DIY photography education. He never had any formal training. “It was just common sense. This is how I picked up my trade.”

By the mid-60s Phillips’s parents were running a Caribbean restaurant in Portobello Road where he would help out. In his free time he snapped other aspects of local life: people and scenes on the street, events such as the Jamaican Independence Day celebrations in 1962. He would take his camera along to student protest marches against nuclear weapons, apartheid and the Vietnam war. In solidarity with the student uprising of 1968, he decided to take a boat to France to see what was going on in Paris. “I’ll always remember, I was outside the Gare du Nord, and it was a big student riot and the police were there, and a student got his head busted in. I saw the blood spurting, and I got panicky. It still shakes me up.” He decided to hitchhike around Europe, and ended up in Rome.

Waiting for the Tube, 1967. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

The term “paparazzo” had been coined eight years earlier by Fellini in the movie La Dolce Vita, which mapped a postwar Rome of frenetic modernity and celebrity culture. Phillips found himself living that life for real, hanging around with genuine paparazzi in cafes or outside film studios, waiting for a tip or a sighting of a passing star to snap: Marcello Mastroianni, Omar Sharif, Gina Lollobrigida, John Mills, Peter O’Toole, spaghetti western actors – Phillips got them all. Claudia Cardinale was especially friendly, he says. She once gave him tickets to the premiere of Oliver!. Lesser-known actors would pay to be photographed for their own portfolios.

It was an exciting, if hand-to-mouth lifestyle. “An agency would take some of my work. You’d get two or three quid, which was survival.” He even met Fellini himself, who cast him as an extra in his 1969 film Satyricon. Easygoing and conversational, Phillips seems to have made friends wherever he went. “Sometimes in my travels, people took a liking to me,” he acknowledges. “That’s how I survived. Seeing as I was the only person of colour, everybody was curious: who’s this Black guy taking photographs?”

Portobello Road, 1966. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

Phillips still harboured dreams of opera, despite living in a commune with Italian revolutionaries who considered it “borghese”, or bourgeois. He often worked as an extra at La Scala, an opera house in Milan. But as a photographer, he was doing pretty well. He sold work to Italian magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Life. He would travel to ski resorts or to the south of France as a paparazzo. And he was travelling back and forth to England. “This is when I started photographing my community in a more serious fashion,” he says. As well as the streets and the Caribbean funerals, he visited the pubs, the shebeens (illegal drinking clubs) and nightclubs such as the Cue Club in Paddington, a venue for soul and bluebeat (early ska music), which was frequented by Black celebrities and rock stars. “I was in the alternative culture of London at the time,” he says. “The sex, drugs and rock’n’roll era, the free love era.” He captured rock stars such as Hendrix and Eric Clapton visiting the head shops and fashion boutiques in Portobello Road. He spent more time with Hendrix and others at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. “I managed to get backstage. I had photographs with Hendrix, Joan Baez, Tiny Tim, I think some of the Who were there, Sly and the Family Stone.”

Silchester Road, demolished to make way for the Westway flyover, 1967. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

In 1972 Phillips held his first solo exhibition – on Notting Hill life – in Milan. To his surprise, the show was visited by Cartier-Bresson, the godfather of street photography and one of Phillips’s idols. “As a matter of fact, I used to dress like Cartier-Bresson. I used to wear a beret at the time. Some of my Italian friends used to compare my work with his.”

By 1974, Phillips was getting homesick and decided to return to England, but again, there was no welcoming party. 

Showing his photographs to editors and galleries in London, “people would say: ‘Did you really take this?’ Nobody believed I took them. I used to get fobbed off all the time. I couldn’t get any assignments.” One gallery even had a photograph of Muhammad Ali, taken by Phillips, on the wall (taken in Zurich in 1971, during Ali’s bout with German champion Jürgen Blin; Phillips went on to meet Ali on numerous occasions) yet refused to believe Phillips was the photographer. “This is how absurd it was.” Did the fact that Phillips was Black have a bearing on his treatment? “I can’t comment on that,” he says. “I think that’s a question you should ask the institutions.”

Ali on Boxing Day ... Muhammad Ali in Zurich before his fight with Jurgen Blin, 1971. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

Phillips grew demoralised. “I became homeless. And I became kind of destitute. I ended up washing up dishes and working in a cafe and restaurant and I put the photography aside.” From 1974 until 1991, Phillips didn’t take a single photograph. Making matters worse, moving between various squats and bedsits, he lost many of his photographs. His images of Hendrix, Cartier-Bresson, the Paris 1968 protests, the Dolce Vita movie stars and so many others are now missing. “If anyone can find my Jimi Hendrix collection, that’s my pension fund.”

In 1988 Phillips opened a Caribbean diner, Smokey Joe’s, in south London, which he ran for 11 years. During that time, his previous career underwent a process of rediscovery. A music magazine contacted him in 1991, seeking to use his photographs from the bluebeat era, he says. By chance, when a courier returned Phillips’s photographs to his diner, one of his customers was Ben Bousquet, a local Labour councillor. Bousquet, originally from St Lucia, had also grown up in 60s Notting Hill. He was amazed when he discovered Phillips’s archive of London immigrant life, which had lain forgotten in a box under his bed. “He said: ‘Bloody ’ell. You mean you have all these photographs sitting there? This is history here!’”

At the ‘Piss House’ pub on the Portobello Road, 1969. Photograph: Charlie Phillips/Getty Images

That led to the Notting Hill in the Sixties book, and a steady career rehabilitation. In 2003, the Museum of London exhibited Phillips’s work, and it has featured regularly in exhibitions since then. His photograph of the young Notting Hill couple is now part of the V&A’s collection. Simon Schama included Phillips’s work in his book and TV series The Face of Britain, describing him as “one of Britain’s great photo-portraitists”. Just last year, Steve McQueen requested Phillips take his portrait when he guest-edited the Observer. Phillips is somewhat ambivalent about his newfound recognition, however, especially when he is pigeonholed as Black culture, rather than just culture. “I feel sometimes I’m being used as political propaganda when they talk about multicultural Britain. I’m sorry, I don’t want to play the colour game. I’m tired of ticking the boxes, because they only call you in Black History Month to show images of Black people, and I’m fed up of it.”

Charlie Phillips: ‘I feel sometimes I’m being used as political propaganda.’ Photograph: Aliyah Otchere/The Guardian

Phillips still takes pictures, he says, but just for himself, “as a hobby”. Occasionally he travels down to the coast to photograph ships. He loves photographing horses. “I still haven’t taken the perfect photograph yet,” he says. “I still make a lot of mistakes.” He now lives in Mitcham, just outside London. “Nothing happens over here. Everything finishes after the News at 10,” he jokes. “All I wanted to do was to spend more time in my allotment and catch up on my reading. I’ve been reading War and Peace for about the last 20 years and I still haven’t finished it yet. But they took me out of retirement because people think I’ve got an interesting life.”

In 2015, he received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to manage his archive. “This is the only thing that keeps me going. I’ve got lots of young volunteers who say: ‘Uncle Charlie, you’ve got to keep your legacy alive, because we don’t see this in schools. We don’t see this in exhibition centres.’ I think we’re not well-represented within the culture of England how we should be. There has been a missing section in our history. Most of our records have been destroyed or weren’t there in the first place … I’m just here to document our side of the story.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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