Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Janet Mendelsohn: Varna Road, Birmingham (1968–69)


Untitled (c.1968): This showcases some of the fine work of American academic and documentary filmmaker Janet Mendelsohn (b. 1943), who took these photos while a student at University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which was established in 1964. Note that this is the other Birmingham, not the one in America, but in England. Varna Road was at the heart of Birmingham’s red light district, then called “the wickedest road in Britain.” In this photo is Kathleen at work. All major cities had such places, where sex-trade workers would congregate, with the knowledge of the police, who would often tolerate the women’s presence on the street. The photos in this show are neither happy nor sad, but present a realistic representation of what was and what is for many people, who for various reasons make such choices. We might judge quickly and harshly, but when we do we might not understand. Ikon Gallery writes on its site: “During the late 1960s Balsall Heath was Birmingham’s largest red light district, a place of work for some 200 prostitutes. Mendelsohn provides an extraordinary insight into these women’s lives, their domestic arrangements and personal relationships as well as the nature of their profession. Kathleen is seen in her upstairs bedroom window soliciting passers-by, and poignantly, in one photograph, standing, waiting in the street–her vulnerability heightened by her silhouette and long sunset shadow thrown onto a pavement made shiny with rain.” The exhibit, Varna Road, is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, from January 27 to April 3, 2016.
Photo Credit: ©Janet Mendelsohn
Courtesy Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham.