Janet Mendelsohn, Varna Road, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Ikon Gallery presents the largest exhibition to date of original prints by American photographer, academic and documentary filmmaker Janet Mendelsohn. The artist studied at the University of Birmingham’s newly-established Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) between 1967 and 1969, and during this time developed a “photo-essay” consisting of around 3,000 photographs largely in the area of Balsall Heath, Birmingham.

The images offer a candid view of inner-city life during a time in which immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia grew, poverty was rife and areas such as Balsall Heath saw great transformation in terms of population and way of life. This was an area that was waiting to undergo severe slum clearance and within two years would become unrecognisable, with the infamous Varna Road, ceasing to exist.

Before this clearance in the late 1960s, the area was home to 200 prostitutes, and so amongst images taken inside pubs, cafés and living rooms, and portraits of family gatherings, Mendelson hones in on a sex worker, Kathleen. The photographer and her subject formed a close relationship and through images of Kathleen, Mendelson communicates the tendency for women to fall into prostitution due to difficult circumstances.

Photographs of Kathleen soliciting passers-by and waiting in the street, damp with rain are coupled with shots of her in hospital, having just given birth, and at home with her children in bed and at bath-time; encouraging not pity but simply communicating the attitude of the photographer, “live and let live.”

Janet Mendelsohn: Varna Road, 27 January – 3 April, Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HS.

Find out more: www.ikon-gallery.org.

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1. Janet Mendelsohn, Kathleen (c.1968). Black and white photographic print. Courtesy Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham.