Most people don’t visit the laundrette to look at photographs. But in the winter of 1980, customers at the Mile End Laundrette in East London encountered a sensitive photographic portrayal of a community living more than 500 miles away. The Orkney Islands was a two-year project by photographer Chick Chalmers, documenting daily life on the Scottish islands.
This exhibition was displayed in the laundrette as a laminated touring exhibition produced by the Half Moon Photography Workshop. Formed in East London in 1972, this radical collective saw photography as a tool for activism and social change. They produced over 50 such touring exhibitions between 1976 and 1984. Images, research, and personal testimonies from those photographed were arranged on card panels, which were then heat pressed between thin sheets of plastic. These unpretentious exhibitions showcased an emerging generation of politicised photographers, documenting working lives and disappearing traditions, shedding light on international conflict and exposing injustices closer to home. Archival ephemera from the time attest that these affordable and transportable exhibitions were displayed at hundreds of venues nationwide, from art centres and universities to prisons, churches, bookshops and the Mile End Launderette.
Sadly, few of the original laminated exhibition panels remain. However, many of these exhibitions were also shown at the Half Moon Photography Workshop’s gallery in Bethnal Green, accompanied by a comments book. This object provides a fascinating insight into how these exhibitions were used, and what people thought of them. Flicking through, it is clear that the exhibitions attracted a wide range of visitors, and sparked fierce debates. Opening with the words ‘HALF MOON PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP COMMENTS BOOK: PLEASE USE IT!’ inked in thick black marker pen, the comments book functioned not as a place to write nice platitudes, but as a forum for political exchange. The pages read like a heated Facebook thread, with university lecturers, art students, local councillors, youth project leaders, museum attendants and self-identified ‘innocent bystanders’ disputing the politics of the era as captured by a generation of photographers.
The comments book makes it clear that many visitors saw these exhibitions as an innovative way to convey important messages and make change. For the 1977 exhibition Growing Old, photographer Mike Abrahams documented the struggles faced by older people, while himself living on the equivalent of a weekly pension. In the book, one visitor sums up this emerging form of socially engaged photographic practice as ‘a very specialised corner of photography: social message and propaganda’. Another notes that ‘As well as making me think about the politics of older people in our society, this exhibition also made me think about how to set up an exhibition to say something.’ A visitor from Greenwich Pensioners proposes that the project be exhibited beyond the gallery walls ‘at social security offices, as well as all pensioners meeting places.’ Similar requests are prevalent throughout the comments book; suggesting that viewers felt the presence of political photography at pertinent venues had the power to inform public opinion and even challenge policymakers. Half Moon photography shows were often strategically exhibited. Teacher George Plemper’s 1979 exhibition Lost at School, a portrait series of his students that reveals Plemper’s disenfranchisement with the school system, was sent to the Institute of Education, the site of teacher training in London.
Across the book’s pages, visitors praised exhibitions for fulfilling the power of political photography in a different way; sharing information and images absent from mainstream media narratives. Guatemala: A Testimonial, a 1980 group project on the plight of refugees fleeing Guatemala’s civil war, provoked shock amongst visitors: ‘information about what’s going on in Guatemala must come out more in the established mass media’. Others acknowledged that the documentary photographer’s eye is never totally neutral, ‘I’d like to have seen more of the fight back. People in Guatemala are organised… They’re not just victims.’ The pages were also a place to debate methods of social change. In response to one visitors’ plea, ‘How can we support the armed struggle against the might of American imperialism?’, an Amnesty International member writes, ‘You can help’ but implores that this must be done by supporting others to express their views without violence.
A number of exhibitions were informed by feminist politics, and visitor comments offer deeper insights into the issues that these photographers were seeking to address. White Hot Light: A Story of a Home Birth was a 1982 exhibition by Karen Michaelsen. The exhibition press release states, ‘Pregnancy and birthing have been taken over by a male dominated medical technology, where many women are treated as if they are ill… Women are now turning away from a situation where they have no control over their bodies’. While emotions are often difficult subject matter for historians to engage with, owing to their fleeting quality, the comments book provides a vital record of how viewers felt. Responses express relief: ‘I had very little idea of what it was all about and was relieved to find that there was a lot about feelings rather than medical mystique.’ They also express gratitude: ‘No other instructions are given to us in this society. It is good to see blood and skin and cloth’, and fury too: ‘Very revealing, makes me more angry than ever that women cannot choose how they give birth!’
After their debut, the laminated exhibitions were sent around the country by British Rail’s Red Star parcel service, which used passenger trains to transport parcels between stations. State infrastructure of the time supported Half Moon Photography Workshop; from a nationalised rail service which connected a network of community organisations beyond the cities, to the Greater London Council Arts Association scheme for the payment of artists, which enabled photographers to get paid for their work.
As laminated exhibitions travelled around the country their meaning was shaped by the venues that hired them. Pete Addis and Jim Byrne’s 1979 exhibition The Sheep Industry was displayed at St. Paul’s Church in Margate alongside texts from the Old and New Testament, ‘to remind us of the many things that the word of God has to say about both sheep and shepherds’, and which likely dampened the exhibitions commitment to taking a raw and unflinching look at twelve months on a Welsh sheep farm, from rearing to slaughter. The vicar travelled to the Half Moon Photography Workshop to leave some feedback in the comment book. He estimates that the exhibition was seen by an astounding 4,000 visitors, who mostly ‘thought the photographs were excellent’, but the captions a little too small ‘for our own particular setting’. Perhaps the humble laminated panels were dwarfed by the architecture of the church.
As the comments book attests, Half Moon’s laminated touring exhibitions reshaped the photographic landscape of Britain. An effective technique for disseminating images and ideas, they were adopted by numerous grassroots organisations. Their widespread use suggests a far-reaching belief in the power of photography to document, agitate and educate, or on a laundry day in 1980, to transport London’s East-enders to Scotland’s northern isles.