Photographer Unknown is a selection of images from the Chats Palace photographic archive, portraying scenes and characters through documentation by a group of voluntary and often uncredited photographers, shown at Chats Palace as part of the East London photography festival Photomonth in October 2014 – September 2015. Portraits range from casual snaps to more formal studies and offer a glimpse of the urban and cultural landscape of the Homerton and Clapton area, within living memory. The pictures were taken over a twenty five year period from 1976 when Chats Palace opened, up to the year 2000.
In the spring of 2014 the original collection of dusty negatives was re-washed and a new set of contact sheets produced in the Photochats darkroom. The contacts were closely studied. Alongside the regular documentation of large community theatre productions, music gigs and performers at festivals, the photographers would sometimes have turned their attention to somebody in the crowd, or on the street or around the building. Often just a single frame, completely overlooked at the time would stand out 30 years later as significant. Those are the images that were printed and worked on over the summer and comprise most of the current exhibition. Themes emerged, Chatsworth Road, young people at the local adventure playgrounds (Homerton Grove and Daubeney) which had strong connections with Chats Palace, Chats Pensioners Project and of course the Hackney Marsh Fun Festival which provided rich opportunities for observing the local community at leisure.
There is basic information on the original negative sheets about the date and nature of the event being photographed but invariably no mention of the photographer’s name. When we spoke about this apparent lack of authorship to Kate Kelly, who was a part time photographic tutor at Chats Palace in the early 1980’s, she responded by describing the role of community artists at the time:
“A lot of us didn’t particularly see ourselves as aspiring artists in our own right in terms of either career or exhibiting. And that is not to say we weren’t serious about what we were doing, and it is not to say that people were not professional. Far from it. Most people had trained, had gone to art school, had got the equivalent of degrees but at that time of their career or lives, they weren’t aspiring to make a name for themselves. Because it was all about working with other people and sharing what you did. At the time it was a kind of obvious thing to do. So there were a lot of like-minded people. And you know we had all those discussions that people still have now about how do you reach hard to reach communities? Are you offering the kind of things that people want? Are you in your workforce or in your groups representing those people? How accessible is it? What are the barriers? Battles with the council, battles over funding. And some people got very engaged with that side of things. And other people were much more focused on keeping their arts programme, their workshop whatever it might be – going. Community Arts was a way of both sharing skills and opportunities in a very immediate way.”