In 1977John Goto made this series of photographic portraits of young British African-Caribbeans at Lewisham Youth Centre, South London, where he taught evening classes in photography. It was not until 2013, however, that circumstances allowed him to first exhibit and publish the work. Autograph ABP, London, published a book entitled Lovers’ Rock, containing forty-five of the portraits with accompanying essays, and to coincide with its launch Art Jericho, Oxford, exhibited a selection of the images alongside other photographs Goto had made in Paris in the same year.
The two main problems Goto faced when returning to the pictures after thirty-five years were how to physically realise them, and how to contextualise them within their historical and cultural moment.
Goto felt strongly that the negatives should not be printed using analogue materials. To make pretence that the prints were contemporaneous with the images would have been a deception and the results at best reproductions, at worst counterfeits. No, the prints had to mark the passage of time between the making of the negatives and their realisation as prints. The development of digital technology was a landmark event during the interim period, and indeed had become integral to Goto’s practice from the early ‘nineties onwards.
The artist argued, furthermore, that inkjet-printing was closer to the printmaking techniques he aimed for even during his analogue days. He disliked the hard impenetrable surface of photographs and had used all kinds of odd papers and toners to make the prints more tactile (see for example his preceding Empire of Things). The negatives were therefore scanned and worked on in the computer before being printed onto a rag paper.
Goto decided on the title of the series as a framing device at an early stage in the project. Lovers’ Rock was a reggae sub-genre, which grew out of the South London scene in the mid ‘seventies. Romantic and sweet sounding, its first hit was Louisa Mark's highly original 1975 cover of Robert Parker’s Caught You in a Lie. Lovers’ Rock was significant in relation to the portraits as the first home-grown British Afro-Caribbean musical form, and also as the music played at the dances where the photographs were made.
Paul Gilroy, Lola Young, Mark Sealy and John Goto’s essays in the Lovers’ Rock publication further develop a context for the work. 1977 was a year of significant political and cultural upheaval in London, with the Battle of Lewisham in August following serious clashes between black youths and police at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival. The far-right National Front attempted to stage a march from New Cross to Lewisham in protest against a multicultural Britain and met with strong resistance from community groups, leading to 214 arrests. In Paul Gilroy’s words, taken from his essay in the publication, Goto’s photographs ‘…have caught that pivotal generation as it proceeds cautiously towards an unambiguous articulation of the dissenting position that was mirrored fleetingly in one political slogan of the time: ‘here to stay, here to fight’.’
In explaining the significance of the series, Gilroy notes that at the time ‘Young black people were being actively criminalised … yet even the most politically sympathetic explanations of their situation left no space for accounts of their cultural life.’ Not acknowledging a people’s culture is effectively to deny them ‘…depth of being’. Gilroy argues that ‘…racism always denies individuality to those it subordinates. A black person is primarily a type, the representative of a group. Here in these images, the photographer’s loving eye has allowed, even encouraged, his sitters to cultivate the dimensions of individual subjectivity that racism simply cannot accommodate.’
Links and further reading:
The Lovers’ Rock book can be purchased from Autograph ABP’s online shop and Amazon