Described by Time Out as ‘the greatest London photographer you’ve never heard of’, Roland ‘Charlie’ Phillips was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1944 and grew up with his grandparents in rural St. Mary. Aged 11 he traveled to Britain to join is parents in Notting Hill and as a teenager began to document his local community, taking photographs with a Kodak Brownie camera he had been given by a black American serviceman. He briefly worked in the Merchant Navy and travelled around Europe in the late 1960s settling in Italy during the ‘La Dolce Vita’ era in Rome. He returned to London in 70s and opened Smokey Joe’s Diner in Wandsworth in 1989. His photographs of people and places associated with Notting Hill depict both significant and everyday moments in the area’s history, particularly its growing black population. They were recognised in the 1990s with the publication Notting Hill in the Sixties (1991) and as part of the Museum of London exhibition Roots to Reckoning (2005). In 2015, Photofusion showed for the first his longterm project, How great Thou Art, his ongoing project to document traditions and rituals around death and funeral exhibitions of London’s African Caribbean communities.
Christmas Eve, 2017 and Charlie is asking me, ‘Can I go now?’ It’s 11:25pm and we’ve been reviewing his website, the culmination of 2 years of sifting, sorting, scanning and talking about his life in photography. In 2 weeks’ time we’re going live with the launch at the Black Cultural Archive; we are captioning his contact sheets, and in between watching clips on YouTube about the Niholas Brothers he remarks, ‘we’re being written out of history.’ I interrupt, ‘What year was this picture taken?’ as we contextualise 30 years of the community of Notting Hill and its surrounding urban villages. His remark reinforces the spirit of the online legacy of the Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive, a digital platform where there has never been one before. Over the years we’ve conspired to put his stories out there, to organise his lifetime in photography in order to make it accessible and inspiring.
In 2013, curator Paul Goodwin produced the exhibition Charlie Phillips: The Urban Eye, at New Art Exchange, Nottingham, it was longlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2014. Speaking of the work, Goodwin compared Phillips’ significance to that of documentary photographers such as Markéta Luskačová, Shirley Baker and Tom Wood, saying: “Each photograph tells ‘other’ stories…about the rise of modern multicultural London and the migrant experience in the city.” Reviewing the exhibition in the Nottingham Post, Mark Patterson called it “a reminder of a London and an England that has almost been wiped out of existence by redevelopment; a country where the business-driven ‘regeneration’ imperative has squeezed out authenticity and local texture. And for London, read Nottingham and many other towns and cities.” Paul Goodwin is currently Professor of Contemporary Art and Urbanism and Director of the Transnational Art, Identity and Nation Research Centre (TrAIN) at University of the Arts London.
Yvonne is a curator of films and cultural practitioner who is presently a Phd Candidate at the Univesity of South Wales, researching the Windrush Caribbean community in Cardiff. She has known Charlie for a number of years and says of him… ‘I am still amazed at his natural curiosity and his zest for life. We first met when I was running the Black Film Festival in Wales and being a lover of Welsh Culture, he wanted to know more and of course was asked to attend, which he did. I was inspired to learn of his involvement in popular culture, his stories of being good friends with Donyale Luna, the first Black Supermodel, singing opera in Rome and being amongst the first paparazzi. To this day Charlie is still a master networker and a lover of life. Charlie continues to fuel my passion for art and culture and encourage my desire to learn create and share.’
Summer 2015, and I am checking my voicemail on a busy 436 bus, I only replay one message again and again. The message from Charlie Phillips telling me, by name, that he wanted me to work on his archive. He said, he had received HLF funding and I should contact Eddie Otchere who was digitising the archive. My excitement wasn’t about hearing news of possible work, it was deeper. It reminded me of a time, 10 years ago whilst walking down Stockwell Road, and seeing an Evening Standard headline, that read: ‘Britain’s first African Caribbean Bronze Statue dedicated to Women, to be placed in Stockwell’, I knew that headline was about Cecile Nobrega’s long campaign to put the role of Black women in high esteem and on that day that goal was achieved. Over the years I had met Charlie, at different events, seminars and conferences. He always walked with his camera, and we always discussed the importance of having his work archived. So the call to action was also an acknowledgement of our past conversations and imaginings. I was touched that Charlie had remembered my pursuit and had kept my number for when the time came. The time had come.
I first met Charlie in my late teens around ’94 -’96. He was sitting in my friends Mum’s kitchen having a lively intellectual debate and examining the world, he was introduced to me then as I know him now as, Uncle Charlie. He asked me who my parents where and when I told him I was Irish/Jamaican, his eyes lit up and we found our common ground, at each meeting we would talk about the ‘Jamaican/Irish connection, Uncle Charlie taught me so much about our rich history. He opened my eyes to the capitals unique history of Jamaican and Irish people. He could track back both my African and my European heritage, our every meeting was like a history lesson, tailored just for me. I pursued a career in pastoral education developing and honing my skill to where I am today, running a CIO and writing, delivering and assessing professional qualifications in the field. Summer 2017 I get a call, a request to compile some evaluation reports for ‘Uncle Charlie’ I said yes with no hesitation, once I got the brief and understood the vital importance of this project the call to action was both a personal and professional honour.