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The Urban Eye

1 July 13 words: Sanjay Brown
A photographic insight into our multi-cultural society

Image: Charlie Phillips, Man in a Zoot Suit

 Image: Charlie Phillips, Man in a Zoot Suit


Charlie Phillips, who was once labelled the black Henri Cartier-Bresson, brings to the New Art Exchange The Urban Eye, an exhibit of photos that could have been taken from the lens of the master himself; personal, quick and expressive. These black and white photographs capture the cultural changes in British society during the late 60s and early 70s as a mix of nationalities flowed into Britain. The pictures explore the changes this brought to both immigrant and native life and culture, and its implications for the audience today.

The exhibition is understandably London-centric, focused mostly on the Notting Hill area of the capital – a postcode best known these days for Hugh Grant’s film toffery, high property prices and equally high pretension levels. However the pictures show an area in flux, both structurally and demographically, as slum clearance and waste debris juxtapose with a new, emerging section of British society, each interacting with the other. Phillips, like Cartier-Bresson, was self-taught and the personal, experimental nature of his photos links perfectly to the trial and error nature of multi-cultural society. One of the most striking pictures of the whole exhibit is two young boys cheekily looking under the cap of a Rastafarian gentleman in the natural, joyful way of youth – just to see exactly what’s under there.
 

Image: Charlie Philips, After Work Drink (Piss house Pub) 1969

Image: Charlie Philips, After Work Drink (Piss house Pub) 1969

Society today can also be glimpsed, emerging from the shadows in some of these pictures. The fashions that came from America via the West Indies; the sunglasses, sharp suits and shoes, the reggae music and night-time passion that has become an unthought-of part our lives today, is seen here in its nascent stage. Language, now shared by white and black youths, is snapped when its exotic flavour was just beginning to be tasted in our green and pleasant land.

The last few pictures of the show, depending on which way one circles the room, are a particular source of joy. The pictures are taken at the outstandingly named Piss House Pub, a working class drinking haven that looks like an incredible amount of fun.
 

Image: Charlie Phillips, Outside The Piss House Pub

Image: Charlie Phillips, Outside The Piss House Pub 


The Urban Eye is another thoughtful, well-curated exhibition from the New Art Exchange. While there's not a lot of material to go on, what is there tells part of a story that runs alongside us today. Successful multi-culturalism is an honest attempt to find out the human reality that sits under whatever mysterious outer layer exists; be it a different skin colour, headdress or method of worship. Like the boys peeking underneath the Rasta's cap, Phillips’ photography is an art form that does exactly this.

A quote by Henri Cartier Bresson, imprinted on the wall, resonates throughout this exhibition, "The creative act lasts for a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” It is through these lightning moments that Phillip’s documents both his own understanding and the attempts of others.

The Urban Eye will continue showing at The New Art Exchange until Saturday 6 July 2013. Entrance is Free.

 

 

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