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Janet Mendelsohn Varna Road Art Exhibition - Ikon Gallery

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Photos From 1960s Show Life In Red Light District
The largest exhibition to date of photographs by American academic and documentary filmmaker Janet Mendelsohn opens at Birmingham's Ikon art gallery.

Mendelsohn photographed sex workers and communities in the late 1960s across the Birmingham suburb of Balsall Heath.

Janet Mendelsohn, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, art exhibition
Janet Mendelsohn's Kathleen hanging out (c.1968). Black and white photographic print. Courtesy Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham.

The exhibition includes part of a 'photo-essay' Mendelsohn made when she was a student at the University of Birmingham from 1967 to 69.

The photographs depict everyday life and focus in particular on a sex worker referred to as Kathleen, with whom Mendelsohn formed a close relationship.

During the late 1960s, Balsall Heath was Birmingham's largest red light district, a place of work for some 200 prostitutes. Mendelsohn provides an extraordinary insight into these women's lives, their domestic arrangements and personal relationships as well as the nature of their profession.

An Ikon spokeswoman said: "By using photography as "a tool for cultural analysis", she provides a unique insight into a transforming community, shaped by increasing immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia, and affected by ongoing poverty-related issues."

Janet Mendelsohn, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, art exhibition
Janet Mendelsohn's The street (c.1968). Black and white photographic print. Courtesy Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham.

To coincide with the exhibition, Symposium: The Social Eye of Janet Mendelsohn is also taking place and an event to explore issued raised in the photographs. This takes place on Saturday 30 January between 9.45am at 6pm in the Studio Theatre of The REP/Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square.

Organised by the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with Dr Kieran Connell from Queen's University Belfast, it features a panel of speakers including Ian Francis of Flatpack Projects, photographer Susan Meiselas and author Val Williams.

The Symposium is free but places need to be booked in advance by emailing Chloe Lund at

There are also free Spotlight Tours at Ikon every Friday at 1pm or Sunday at 3pm when a member of the art gallery staff gives a 15 minute tour looking at key work in the current exhibitions. There's no need to book as you can just turn up in the foyer of Ikon.

Mendelsohn enrolled as a student at the newly-established Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and it was there that she was encouraged by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart – then deputy and director of CCCS – to explore ways in which photography could be used in field research.

The resulting archive of 3,000 photographs and interviews are now held at the Cadbury Research Library at University of Birmingham.

Mendelsohn's photographs document a working class district in flux. The area was about to undergo a relentless process of slum clearance and Balsall Heath would soon become unrecognisable with many of its streets, including the infamous Varna Road, ceasing to exist.

Janet Mendelsohn, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, art exhibition
Janet Mendelsohn's exhibition is on at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham city centre.

Busy outdoor scenes are interspersed with others inside pubs, cafés and living rooms whilst portraits of individuals, usually contemplative if not melancholic, are counterbalanced by a strong emphasis on family and gatherings of friends, making do and getting by.

An Ikon spokeswoman added: "Kathleen is seen in her upstairs bedroom window soliciting passers-by, and poignantly, in one photograph, standing, waiting in the street – her vulnerability heightened by her silhouette and long sunset shadow thrown onto a pavement made shiny with rain."

She said: "Kathleen is a young woman in a dark place, but Mendelsohn's work does not slip into sentimentality. Other images make it clear that she finds Kathleen's tenacity and defiance remarkable; also the love she has for her children, her sense of responsibility as well as her sense of fun."

Photographs show Kathleen in hospital, just after the birth of her second child, with the father Salim, a young Asian man; and at other times at home with her children.

A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, which is organised in collaboration with University of Birmingham and Queen's University Belfast. Supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Exterion Media, The Photography Show, Flatpack Projects, Library of Birmingham and Art Gallery

Janet Mendelsohn - Varna Road Photography Exhibition
Ikon art gallery
off BrindleyPlace, 1 Oozells Square, Birmingham
27 January — 3 April 2016
Free admission
For more information visit the Ikon website.
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Why? See fascinating photographs of Birmingham's Red Light District
When: 27 January — 3 April 2016
Phone: 0121 248 0708
Where: Ikon Gallery
Cost: Free
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