Reflecting on the life and legacy of British photographer Philip Wolmuth, who used the camera as a tool of liberation in the fight for social justice.

Boys beneath the Westway flyover throw stones at a London Underground train as it passes Acklam Road, Notting Hill © Philip Wolmuth

Philip Wolmuth (1950 – 2021), who died the week of February 21, was best known for documenting the lives of the working class in the UK and beyond. Following in the tradition of “socially concerned photographers” like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, Wolmuth used photography as a means to not only document how the other half lives but to democratize the medium decades before the advent of digital photography. 

A self-taught photographer, Wolmuth carried a camera from an early age but it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that his work began in earnest. In the early 1970s, Wolmuth, who lived in London, moved from South Kilburn to Camden Town, where he lived in a squat and experienced the brutality of housing provisions firsthand. He later moved into a communal house with others involved in community politics, which further informed his strong sense of social justice and grassroots activism. 

Horniman's Adventure Playground, North Kensington, 1975 © Philip Wolmuth

All Power to the People

Inspired by British photographer Paul Carter, who had started the pioneering Blackfriars Photography Project with the community in Blackfriars Settlement in 1973, Wolmuth applied for a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and set up the North Paddington Community Darkroom (NPCD) at the 510 Community Centre on the Harrow Road (W9) in 1976. Located on the border of Portobello and Notting Hill, North Paddington and North Kensington were poor areas in rich boroughs, afflicted by economic deprivation, housing shortage, substandard housing, overcrowding, and boarded up properties, along with high unemployment amid the working class immigrant community. 

“Philip‘s vision of community photography was not just taking pictures of community action, but also with people involved in these projects,” say his partner Jane Matheson, and their children Anna and Eva Wolmuth. 

Notting Hill Carnival © Philip Wolmuth

On a mission to make art accessible to people outside the mainstream art world, Wolmuth sought to empower local residents with a working knowledge of photography. Through NPCD, Wolmuth taught photography and darkroom classes, organized displays, built a photographic archive of local events, and supported the work of community organizations.

‘‘Community photography was not only part of the wave of grassroots activism of the time, it was also part of a concurrent politicization of photography itself,” Wolmuth told the British Journal of Photography in 2010. “At NPCD we were concerned particularly with countering the stereotypical portrayal of women, ethnic minorities, and ‘working class struggle’ (a phrase that was soon to go out of fashion) in the mass media.”

Challenge Scaffolding Ltd., one of many small businesses renting space under disused railway arches in the King's Cross Goods Yard, 1989 © Philip Wolmuth

True to the Game

In addition to running the NPCD, Wolmuth was a prolific photographer in his own right, documenting life in London for half a century. From 1977 to 2020, Wolmuth documented Speaker’s Corner, creating an enduring portrait of British social resistance in its many-splendored forms. He photographed Occupy London, the Grenfell Tower Disaster, Brexit: The People’s Vote March, Extinction Rebellion, and COVID-19 — maintaining the politics of his youth throughout his life. Just prior to his death, Café Royal Books released two collections of work from his archive that offer provide a look at Wolmuth at work — Notting Hill 1970s and Kings Cross 1989-90

“The word that always comes to my mind when looking at Philip’s work is ‘warmth.’ His pictures are so warm and human. There isn’t an ounce of judgment in them. Yes, he adds a touch of irony to make a point from time to time, but there are no barbs to his humor. I get such a delight from his pictures, the same delight I get from his quiet smile. He just seems able to float quietly into situations and come out with intimate moments, effortlessly composed, timed and full of the quality of light he finds,” says artist Paul Carter. 

Tea dance at the Hampden Comunity Centre, Somerstown, Kings Cross, London, 1990 © Philip Wolmuth

“I think Philip must be very comfortable but humble about his worldview. He just has to be himself. His pictures are never labored or formulaic. He is so genuinely interested and surprised by the events he goes into. He never beats the drum of a ‘position.’ He does not need to make a point. He is a true reporter and witness, and seems to have never lost his love of making pictures.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

 

Notting Hill 1970s 
Kings Cross 1989-90

£6.50 each, both for £11
Café Royal Books 
Available here.

The German Gymnasium and gas holders, Kings Cross, 1990 © Philip Wolmuth

 

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