Arts Week 2018: The Archive Project: 50 years of film and photography

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, reports on an Arts Week Event from the Four Corners film and photography centre in East London.

On Wednesday 16 May, I had the pleasure of attending The Archive Project: 50 Years of Film and Photography in East London which took place at Birkbeck cinema. Dr Patrizia Di Bello from The Department of The History of Art introduced Carla Mitchell to a packed audience, who provided an excellent presentation as the Creative Director of Four Corners film and photography centre. Now celebrating its forty-fifth year at 113 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, Carla’s talk examined the peak of productivity at the organisation between 1972-1987.

Four Corners was created by Joanna Davis, Mary Pat Leece, Ronald Peck and Wilfried Thust, (graduates from London International Film School). The quartet’s chief mission was to bring accessible film to the borough and to provide regular cinema screenings for local residents and equipment to film and edit material. Over the next four decades, Four Corners quickly developed a reputation as being at the forefront of ‘cutting edge’ film production, nurturing home-grown talent from underprivileged backgrounds as well as from a pool of BAFTA and Turner Prize nominees through hands-on production workshops. The centre introduced monthly meetings where artists, photographers and trainees filmmakers collaborated, exchanging original ideas and clips in front of live audiences. Four Corners also excelled in pioneering film projects; Nighthawks (Dir: Ron Peck/Paul Hallam, 1978), had the distinction of being the first British gay feature film, following a schoolteacher who remains in the closet at work but cruises gay bars and discos at night.

After Channel 4 took over a franchise with Four Corners, sterling work continued through Four Corners apprentice Ruhul Amin, who created A Kind of English (1986) recognised as the first Bangladeshi British film discussing the struggles of a Bengali family adjusting to life in Britain.

Carla also discussed the influence of Camerawork (Half Moon Photography Workshop), a fellow film and photographic organisation which championed community activism and anti-racist causes, and Carla looked at the creative input of leftist British publication Camerawork Magazine founded in 1976, led the late Jo Spence (whose personal library collection is housed at Birkbeck College). Camerawork Magazine challenged the more contentious taboo subjects upon the political landscape of Britain through the transition under Thatcher’s government from the late seventies. Jo Spence launched the magazine with her essay ‘The Politics of Photography’ and was at the forefront of Women’s collective Hackney Flashers (1974-early 80s) which encouraged feminist agitprop exhibitions; Women at Work (1975), Who’s Holding The Baby? (1978), Domestic Labour and Visual Representation (1980) all exploring the woman’s role in and outside the home.

Front covers captured the rise of National Front skinheads upon the streets of Camden and the team of photographers exposed the darker political ramifications upon the landscape caused by the turmoil of the Miners Strikes, where trade unionist Arthur Scargill led the union as a leading activist. Camerawork Magazine would cease as a publication in 1985.

Today, Four Corners has benefited from a generous £1 million heritage lottery grant, which has seen the creation of a new centre in 2007 at 121 Roman Road, thanks to backing from Arts Council England, London Development Agency, Film London, London Borough of The Tower of Hamlets and European Regional Development Fund. Today it houses dark rooms, a gallery, training rooms, edit suites and space to hire.

Four Corners will officially launch their Radical Visions, an archive exhibition from June to September 2018 commemorating their legacy in East London, with a public display showing all 32 copies of Camerawork magazine. With input from 50 volunteers since 2016 and £100,000 from The Heritage Lottery Fund, Four Corners continues to thrive and inspire future generations of filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Carla provided a poignant and fitting tribute to the hard work of skilled artists who continue to cut advance with Four Corners.

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