Review: Charlie Phillips captures a forgotten Notting Hill

Jamaican-born photographer Charlie Phillips, whose Urban Eye exhibition is currently showing at the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green, worked as a paparazzo for many years and lived by the code ‘shoot now, ask questions later’. His naturalistic portraits depict people going about their daily lives, occasionally stopping to peer into the onlooker’s camera.

Phillips captures life in post-war Notting Hill when immigrants from around the Commonwealth arrived in Britain hoping to make a new life for themselves. The Notting Hill they inhabited is a world away from the gentrified version we know today. Here, buildings stood in ruins and the bleak, urban landscape was one that was all too familiar in a city that was still feeling the effects of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.

The newly-arrived immigrants injected a sense of vitality into war-battered, monochrome Britain. In Crowd Scene, Notting Hill Carnival, Phillips captures the moment when people of all backgrounds get together for a joyous celebration while in Kebab Shop Dandy, a gentleman dons his finest clothes and poses outside a rough-and-ready looking takeaway. There were the places where different communities would all congregate, notably the ‘Piss House Pub’ which Phillips says was ‘a meeting place for different working class people, both black and white, Caribbean and Irish’.

It is impossible to separate Phillips’ highly personal portraits from the socio-political movements taking place in London at this time. In Notting Hill Couple (pictured above), a young black man and a young white woman stare directly into the camera and their defiance is startling, reminding us that not so long ago a relationship like this would have been out of the ordinary. In this community, racism – both casual and institutional – simmered away and when coupled with the grinding poverty faced by many people, it proved to be the catalyst which led to the eruption of the notorious riots of 1958.

Charlie Phillips: The Urban Eye runs until 7th July.

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