Lovers’ Rock: An Interview with John Goto

Photographer John Goto’s exhibition ‘1977: Lewisham and Belleville’, the most recent to run at Art Jericho, displays photographs from both South London and Paris, taken in 1977. While the Belleville photographs focus upon architecture and objects, the Lewisham series consists of a set of portraits taken in a space adjacent to a dance hall at Lewisham Youth Centre, where Goto used to teach. This is the first time that the latter series has been displayed, and is published by Autograph ABP, an organisation established with ‘the mission of advocating the inclusion of historically marginalised photographic practices.’ They aim to build an archive that ‘addresses a gap in the visual representation of Britain’s cultural history and its diverse communities’, a brief that Goto’s photographs of young black people in 1970s London fits perfectly.

1977 was a year of significant political and cultural upheaval in South London, with the Battle of Lewisham in August following the rioting at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival. The far-right National Front attempted to stage a march across Lewisham in protest against a multi-cultural Britain and met with significant resistance, the resulting conflict leading to 214 arrests. It was within this political climate that John Goto’s Lovers’ Rock series came into being, photographing young black people growing up amidst such unrest. In Paul Gilroy’s words, taken from his essay in the book accompanying the exhibition, ‘Goto’s loving photographs have caught that pivotal generation as it proceeds cautiously towards an unambiguous articulation of the dissenting position that was mirrored fleetingly in one political slogan of the time: ‘here to stay, here to fight’.’

ⓒ John Goto
ⓒ John Goto

In explaining the significance of the series, Gilroy notes that at the time ‘Young black people were being actively criminalised … yet even the most politically sympathetic explanations of their situation left no space for accounts of their cultural life.’ Not acknowledging a people’s culture is effectively to deny them a soul, a voice, or any factor that humanises in an appreciable way. As Gilroy argues, ‘Racism always denies individuality to those it subordinates … Here in these images, the photographer … has allowed, even encouraged, his sitters to cultivate the dimensions of individual subjectivity that racism simply cannot accommodate.’

In choosing the title Lovers’ Rock, Goto references an emerging musical genre of the time, a style of reggae that achieved its first significant hit with Louisa Mark’s 1975 cover of Bobby Parker’s Caught You in a Lie. Characterised as a ‘softened, British reggae sub-genre that focused on romance’, this lay at the heart of the culture finding roots in South London, and was played in the dance hall where the photographs were taken. Each portrait offers a fascinating insight into contemporary fashion, with all the sitters dressed in preparation for an evening at the dance hall. From gregarious flared jeans and jewellery, to conservative turtle necks paired with long skirts, the range of personalities exhibited makes the interest of the series extend beyond its archival significance. Baroness Lola Young’s summary of the exhibition perfectly encapsulates the charm of the photographs displayed: ‘To see the images only as an antidote to pictures of black youth rioting or representing failure of one kind or another, or as emblematic of the troublesome nature of the period, would be too reductive. While it is important to note the contrast between John Goto’s photographs and other, official visual and verbal accounts, to focus only on these aspects of the work would be to underplay the extraordinary ordinariness … of the subjects depicted.’

As if preserved in a time warp, these are the 1977 equivalent of the type of photographs that would now be uploaded to Facebook before a night out. Placed alongside the images of deserted and forgotten corners of Paris, the entire exhibition not only seems to ‘signal a form of resistance to the prevailing social conditions and attitudes’, but also a simple document of everyday life, be it behind the glamour of Parisian streets or the political unrest of those in Lewisham.

I spoke to photographer John Goto about the exhibition, and why they have come to light at this juncture. Goto has held solo exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, Photographers’ Gallery, and Tate Britain, and is best known for his photo-digital artworks.

Why did you choose the title ‘Lovers’ Rock’ for the Lewisham series?

I chose this title because it refers to a musical form that’s specific to South London where it originated. Lovers’ Rock was the first British Afro-Caribbean musical form to grow out of this country. It took reggae and developed a new genre from it. The general argument was that reggae had moved into a roots reggae phase, which was Rastafarian-based. It was very political and it was heavy. The argument is that for young people who had grown up in Britain, this didn’t really strike the chord that it might, because they had different cultural roots… [Lovers’ Rock] was a much more melodic kind of music, softer, and much more inclined towards women. There are arguments about this; the standard line is that it was apolitical in relation to roots reggae’s political radicalism. This was supposedly music for the women – the way that you danced to Lovers’ Rock involved very close dancing. The counter-argument is that it was political – these overt displays of sexuality in themselves were a kind of radical statement by women of that time. So there are conflicting views about its social significance.

My portraits were taken on dance nights in a youth centre where as a young artist I was teaching evening classes. The type of music that was being played at these events was probably a mixture – I don’t remember exactly – of Lovers’ Rock and roots reggae… The young people there – they were such nice kids, without pretensions. Obviously it’s a different generation but I can’t imagine kids these days not being ironic and knowing in front of the camera – the ‘selfie’ generation.

ⓒ John Goto
ⓒ John Goto

When you say that there’s an emphasis on women and the feminine in Lovers’ Rock, is that something you were consciously thinking about when you took the series?

No, that is very much on reflection. I worked at the centre for a couple of years so I knew some of the subjects fairly well. They were going into the dance hall and it was very much to do with who responded to my request to sit for a photograph. And nearly everybody did. The relationships between them really is lovely… And as Paul Gilroy points out in his essay, these photos provide a contrast to the stereotypical images of the period.

These are very different to your other work. Why have you decided to exhibit these photos now?

When I took these photos, there was nowhere to really go with them. The fact that they have emerged now is a marker of some of the changes that have happened in Britain and British culture – certainly in the arts – since ’77.  Multiculturalism has been encouraged, particularly through the efforts of the Arts Council. Part of the transition of the period – I’m not saying that it’s fixed all the problems – is a voice for minority ethnic groups that certainly wasn’t there in ’77.

These photos were never exhibited at the time, but I always wanted to get them shown and every now and then I would try to interest a gallery. Autograph ABP is an arts organisation with a very specific brief, to deal with images of minority cultures in Britain, and they are also associated with human rights issues. They picked up on my work through an ex-student of mine, Dave Lewis. The reason for their interest is partly because they have an ongoing project called The Missing Chapter. What they’re trying to do is build an archive of those elements of British society whose history is not featured in the mainstream visual discourses. So for example, they arrange for families to contribute photographs from their family albums, so they can build up a visual resource. My series very much fits into that brief.

ⓒ John Goto
ⓒ John Goto

You’ve talked about your other works having a sense of narrative – if this is very much archival material, does that sense of narrative apply here?

This is youthful work made during my apprenticeship years. I didn’t really produce what I consider mature work until a decade later, but it’s all pointing in a similar direction … At the time these pictures were fairly innocently made. I knew that this was a really interesting situation, and it was also part of my life. At the time I photographed other people – friends, other artists – in a not dissimilar way. The narrative aspects have really been developed in the last three years, in terms of how we have presented the pictures and contextualize them … If they were contextualised differently, or not at all, they could well be seen as nostalgia shots, or album cover fodder. … In collaboration with Autograph ABP, a lot of thought has been put into contextualizing them; the way that they’ve been printed, the colour, using digital processing in their presentation to mark the distance between past and present, and most importantly the two essays in the book. So the narrative aspects have been excavated in retrospect… One of the weird things about getting older and building an archive of material is that you yourself start to become history! It’s a strange feeling. When you start out you’re trying to forge a way. Now those things that you once made are becoming ‘vintage’.

If you were taking a series of portraits now, how would you approach it?

Portraiture’s a curious genre. I was artist-in-residence at the National Portrait Gallery for a year in 1999, where I was actually working on recording a building project in various ways. This is a slightly circuitous way of putting it, but the key criteria at the National Portrait Gallery is the importance of the person, the subject, and only secondary is the artistic quality of the image. At the time I would have argued for the reverse, but returning to the Lovers’ Rock series has made me think differently. The enduring quality of the images is due primarily to the subjects, to the young people. Maybe that is both the value and the limitation of portraiture.

Digital technology offers new possibilities for making portraits. Using it I made a portrait of the eminent psychoanalyst Dr Donald Meltzer, bringing together into one picture objects and images that told about his contribution to the discipline. There was Melanie Klein’s couch, a Velasquez painting that he was fond of, various books and the scene out of the window I changed to Shotover, which is where he had his practice. I did another one for the British Academy, which was about their female vice-presidents. It was a picture in two halves – there were eight women; four of them were living and I worked with them directly, and four had passed away, so I worked with archival images of them. I put these two groups together, so that we had the quick and the dead in one picture. I set it in the British Library as it was when it was housed in the British Museum. Actually, I spent a week digitally shelf-stacking, putting appropriate titles onto the shelves! It’s that degree of control and articulation that digital imaging offers that one simply couldn’t have done before.

Your other work reminds me very much of Surrealist montages, almost Dadaist in some ways.

That is very true. The unconscious hasn’t gone away, it’s still an important aspect of the way that we are.

ⓒ John Goto
ⓒ John Goto

Where you’ve spoken about how art and society intersect, the idea that ‘the artist’s job is to tell as fully as possible how it is to be in their time’ – is there an outcome that you would want from your art?

It’s more a responsibility than anything else. There is an ethical dimension to art, however you wish to put it… to comment…to witness. When you look at much of the interesting art from the past, encoded in it is an understanding of its time, because the artist is acutely aware of the socio-political world in which they live.

Where do you feel that artistic photography is going now, particularly when you have the widespread use of digital media – Instagram for example?

It’s in crisis. Photographic education is in crisis, though I’m not sure that everyone lecturing in the subject knows it! There are two things: firstly, photography is no longer the darling of the art world that it was fifteen or twenty years ago. Why has that happened? I think it’s because after digitalization, neither the artists nor the curators really know what the status or nature of photography is any longer. Is it a form of graphics, a web-based medium? Secondly, there’s the social question of what’s happening with the internet and how the proliferation of digital images is changing the way we interact. This is all happening so very fast that most academics are on the back foot with it. It’s very difficult to keep up. In education most photographic courses keep a place in both camps, they still have dark rooms where you can go to savor the smells of the nineteenth century … They’re really not addressing the seismic shift that has occurred.

I started writing about these problems twenty years ago, but still it’s much the same. I hadn’t realised how much of a time lapse there is between technological innovation and cultural understanding. It can cause divisions between generations. I have a granddaughter who is two and a half years old and is finding her way around an iPad, and yet I know people in higher education who are barely acquainted with such technology. … I’m sure it is not just in photography that this is happening.

In the digital environment, when you have youngsters in their bedrooms creating really terrific work, it opens up questions as to what the proper academic study of these subjects might be. The old hierarchies are changing. The role of the curator, for example, that small group of cognoscenti who determine what is of value and what’s not – their authority is being challenged by the crowd dynamics of social media. I have certain images on my website that have gone, by my standards, viral. They’re not particularly the ones that the galleries have been interested in, so now you have different measures of these things. I’m not saying that numbers and the web are always the most discerning indicators, or make the most sound judgments, but these changes do signify something.

Do you feel there’s still a gap between popular media and art gallery media?

Actually, I think it’s even more evidently the case in music. New media is testing the boundaries between disciplines, and new hybrid forms are emerging. For example, one of the ways in which 3D printing works is to have a bank of cameras recording the object or person, so it can be argued to be a form of photography. But in fact it breaks down completely the old categories of photography, sculpture, and performance.

ⓒ John Goto
ⓒ John Goto

John Goto’s Lovers’ Rock series can be viewed on his website; the book accompanying the series, including Paul Gilroy and Baroness Lola Young’s essays, is available to buy here. For more information about Autograph ABP, or upcoming exhibitions at Art Jericho, please visit their respective websites.

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