Photography of Protest and Community

Photography of Protest and Community: The Radical Collectives of the 1970s by Noni Stacey is published by Lund Humphries (£40 hardback). Get 20% + free UK postage with special offer code Oxford 20. Visit www.lundhumphries.com and use code Oxford20 at checkout to apply the discount. Valid until end 31 October 2020.

The Hackney Flashers Collective: ‘the personal is political’

An extract from a new book: Photography of Protest and Community: The Radical Collectives of the 1970s by Noni Stacey (published 19 October by Lund Humphries).

The work of the Hackney Flashers Collective (hereafter, the Hackney Flashers) as a self-consciously feminist, socialist collective exemplified the slogan of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), ‘the personal is political’. The Borough of Hackney at that time encompassed some of the poorest and most deprived working-class areas in the capital. In their quest to provoke political change, the collective used photographic images, text, collage, cartoons, photomontage and documentary graphics to depict the lives of women at work, inside and outside the home. The collective explicitly eschewed the word ‘art’ as a descriptor, preferring instead to use the term ‘agitprop’. Their work was created in the dual context of a push for equality at a grassroots level through the WLM and as a response to British parliamentary legislation on equality introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The central question is how this photography collective drew on libertarianism and feminism in the adoption of community photography to facilitate their projects. Within this, the focus is on the merging of the individual, economic and social experience of women. This involves the ways in which these collectives exercised autonomy, the blurring of boundaries between public and private and the rejection of a Marxist-derived economic determinism that suggested ‘the idea that women’s liberation could be put off until after the revolution’.

THE FORMATION OF THE HACKNEY FLASHERS

The Half Moon Gallery created a space for new people and new ideas, with women at the heart of this. Julia Meadows organised the exhibition Women in 1974, which brought together the photographers Maggie Murray, Val Wilmer, Sally Greenhill and Angela Phillips. Murray said of this time: ‘We had a lot of good fun doing that exhibition, but it was also the start of raising my consciousness about feminism, about the position of women in our society, particularly in photography.’ Men was a second exhibition for this group in 1976, the same year as a solo exhibition from Claire Schwob entitled Women: Who Are We?. A review in Spare Rib of the latter echoed the problem that would face the Hackney Flashers with Women and Work, in raising concerns around the complex set of decisions within, and possible readings of, black-and-white documentary photographs, which decided ‘exhibition did little to answer the question’:

The 42 photographs, interesting though they were, presented more a documentary of women in the roles of wife, mother, girlfriend or worker. Some were very powerful as single images. But in the light of Claire’s aim: ‘to provide a positive visual statement of women as people’ the most memorable images were expressing women’s alienation at home, at work, in a restaurant or simply shopping.

This highlighted a dichotomy concerning the representation of women – how to portray them as active rather than passive, while attempting to reveal the complexity of their lives. Reviews of Men also referred to this conundrum – how to get away from stereotypes. Men initially sought to stereotype men in the same way that women were stereotyped in photographs, before becoming a broader project: ‘Group meetings modified this aim and the exhibition became a product of the discussions. For many of us the best part of the process has been the discipline of working together and taking pictures specifically for such a theme.’

For Ainslie Ellis, writing in the British Journal of Photography (BJP), the exhibition covered the ‘sweet friction of sex and gender in our lives’. His review changed in tone, from this:

To my mind this is clearly the best exhibition of photography related to a theme, to a common purpose, that I have seen to date. It has, above all, and quite apart from any photographic merit, a refreshing sense of personal involvement.

To this:

We arrive on earth already programmed with genes and gender. What we do with both these factors is our personal and social history interacting: in a word our everyday life. How we succeed in this has something, but by no means everything, to do with the delicious difference between us.

It is this ‘delicious difference’ that the Hackney Flashers sought to dispel in Women and Work: the difference between images of men at work as strong and heroic and images of women at work as passive and downtrodden. The BJP review appeared alongside

a review of Half Moon Photography Workshop’s Camera Obscured? seminar on the position of women in photography. While noting that the public would charge that the representation of women was dominated by the ‘supine and unclothed’, the reviewer Tim Hughes found the tone of the seminar was ‘unhappily defensive’:

Attempts to pin down differences between the approach of male photographers and female (those neat boxes again) petered out in conclusion. Remarks from the body of the audience – perhaps two-thirds male – strongly suggested on analysis that the reaction of the viewer, knowing that a photograph is taken by a woman, colours his (oh yes, especially his) reading of the result. It’s not the woman photographer’s interpretation which is definably different; the female viewpoint is in the eye of the beholder.

However, the three exhibitions – Women, Men, and Women: Who are We? – provided the possibility for women photographers to group together and work on a project within a British photographic environment where male photographers far outnumbered women photographers. It was through the meetings of the group around the Women exhibition that Murray and Sally Greenhill met Spence, who knew Michael Ann Mullen and Christine Roche. Murray says: ‘It was at the meetings of the Half Moon photography exhibition group that I first met Jo Spence. Jo Spence came to one of those meetings to talk to us and to try and involve some of us in a project that she was just starting up that ended up being the Hackney Flashers.’

In the period of its existence from 1974 to 1980, the membership was fluid.10 The core group on the website for the Hackney Flashers is listed as An Dekker, Sally Greenhill, Gerda Jager (graphic designer), Liz Heron, Michael Ann Mullen, Maggie Murray, Christine Roche (illustrator), Jo Spence and Julia Vellacott. Others collaborating with them at different times included Helen Grace, Maggie Millman, Jini Rawlings, Ruth Barrenbaum, Annette Soloman, Arlene Strasberg and Chris Treweek.

In 1975, the collective agreed on the name the Hackney Flashers, with its inherent humour and ambiguity, referencing both the flash of the camera and ‘flasher’, the term given to a man exposing his genitals in public.

Michael Ann Mullen says of the initial gathering together of the collective:

I got involved in the Hackney Flashers through Jo Spence and I met Jo Spence through Christine Roche and Christine [had] met Jo at a Children’s Rights Workshop. Christine and I – Christine is an illustrator and I was a photographer – we were both looking for a way of working within some kind of more politically active configuration, and had actually gotten involved with See Red, a poster collective, but it didn’t suit either of us, because neither of us were making posters.

The internal workings of the collective are examined throughout the period of their existence from 1974 to 1980, despite the fluidity of their membership – and how the minute books of their meetings and discussions evidence their self-conscious, self-reflexive decision-making. Overall, the Hackney Flashers sought to challenge mainstream media practices by embedding the photograph as an active response, to create a ‘two-way conversation’, as the theorist Allan Sekula suggested.

The Jo Spence Archive, as it was termed by Terry Dennett, yielded extensive material, some of which the Hackney Flashers were unaware of, including the daybooks of Hackney Flashers meetings. Much of the material has been dispersed and relocated to the Reina Sofía museum (Madrid), Bishopsgate Institute, Ryerson University in Canada, the Richard Saltoun Gallery in London and the University of London.

THE ART OF PROTEST

In 1968, women machinists working at the Ford Motor Company car factory in Dagenham, near London, walked out on strike to demand equal pay for work of equal value to that of their male colleagues. They eventually won the dispute: this triggered the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which was not to come into force until 1975, alongside the Sex Discrimination Act.14 The Trades Union Congress introduced the Working Women’s Charter in 1974, although it was rejected the following year. The charter’s ten demands provided a focus for the WLM. It also provided impetus for the activities of women in photography and art, both inside and outside the gallery.

The Hackney Flashers’ work did not strive for recognition from the art establishment or for placement in the gallery, as compared with other feminist art projects in London in the 1960s and early 1970s. The collective derived inspiration from exhibitions shown outside the mainstream galleries, such as those at the Half Moon Gallery, which presented women’s working and home lives from very different perspectives from that of establishment magazines, advertising and publishing.

The collective’s aim was to inform and mobilise public opinion, and to take their work into spaces used every day by ordinary people, including community halls, launderettes, trade union meeting rooms and schools, transforming them into alternative spaces for pedagogy and exhibition. This reflected the move away from established institutions and galleries exhibiting the conceptual artists of the 1960s. The Hackney Flashers were keen not simply to reflect upon their own circumstances. Rather, they bore witness, as a political act, to the lives, work and struggles of others living in their locality. The Hackney Flashers’ premise was that if they made their photographs and hitherto inaccessible information about the subjects and social context available, this would inform and support political and social change at a local level, which, in turn, would lay the groundwork for political change at a national level.

The Hackney Flashers came together in 1974, self-consciously informed by the WLM, the push for civil rights and equality in both the UK and the USA, and by the modes of protest utilised by the American civil rights movement and opponents of the escalating US military involvement in Vietnam. Integral to these movements for social change was the aim of disrupting patriarchal and hierarchical systems underpinning the structures and exercise of power by political parties and trade unions in the political sphere and in the cultural sphere, art institutions and government-funded organisations. The act of establishing a collective was an embodiment of this intent to disrupt.

Photography of Protest and Community: The Radical Collectives of the 1970s by Noni Stacey is published by Lund Humphries (Hardback £40) Pre-order your copy here.

Image Credits

Green poster: Poster from Hackney Flashers, Who’s Holding the Baby?, 1978

Yellow poster: Workshop poster for the Hackney Flashers by Christine Roche

Hackney Flashers orange poster © Christine Roche