Vanley Burke

Vanley Burke (born 1951) is a British Jamaican photographer and artist, who has been described as "the Godfather of Black British Photography", with his body of work "regarded as the greatest photographic record of African Caribbean people in post-war Britain".[1]

Vanley Burke
Vanley Burke - 2019-02-12 - Andy Mabbett - 03.jpg
Burke in February 2019
Born1951 (age 68–69)
Saint Thomas, Jamaica
  • Photographer
  • Artist Edit this at Wikidata

Life and workEdit

Vanley Burke was born in St. Thomas, Jamaica, in 1951. For his 10th birthday he was sent a "Box Brownie" camera – a Kodak Brownie 127 – by his mother, who in the late 1950s had gone to live in England,[2] while he remained with his aunt in St.Thomas.[3] In 1965 at the age of 14 he went to join his parents in the UK, leaving his radio to his aunt as a parting gift but taking his camera with him.[4]

Vanley seriously started photography around 1967, making a conscious decision to document the black community and lifestyle in England. His first studio was in Grove Lane, Handsworth, Birmingham.[3]

His photographs capture experiences of his community's arrival in Britain, the different landscapes and cultures he encountered, the different ways of survival and experiences of the wider African-Caribbean community. His photography sought to counteract any perception of negative or stereotypical imagery of black people found in mainstream media. His photographs[5] represented members of the black community back to themselves in intimate portrayal and were taken from his perspective as an integral member of the community as opposed to basic documentary images perceived from "outsiders". Burke's interests have expanded to include other communities in the city and their experiences.

Burke's first notable exhibition, Handsworth from the Inside, was held at the Ikon Gallery Birmingham, and then the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1983. Since then his work has been exhibited extensively at venues including The Light House, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Black Arts Gallery in London, Cornerhouse in Manchester and Walsall Museum and Art Gallery, and he has held solo exhibitions abroad in New York City and Mali. In addition to many prestigious galleries and other traditional settings, Burke has purposely exhibited his work in locations more easily accessible to black audiences such as community centres, clubs, pubs, churches, pool halls and schools.[6] The 1993 exhibition From Negative Stereotype to Positive Image included his work alongside that of three other Birmingham photographers: Sir Benjamin Stone (1838-1914), Ernest Dyche (1887-1973) and Claudette Holmes (born 1962).[7] He was a significant contributor of his imagery to the Birmingham photography magazine and collective, Ten.8.

Burke's work has also been used in documentaries (including Handsworth Songs, 1986), television programmes, books and on record sleeves such as UB40’s "Jeffrey Morgan". A biography A Retrospective, on the life and works of Vanley Burke, was published by Lawrence & Wishart, edited by Mark Sealy.[8] In 1990 Burke received a call from a friend in South Africa saying: "South Africa is going to be free and we need you here." During two visits to South Africa, in 1990 then in 1996, Burke photographed the life of black South Africans just after Nelson Mandela's release from prison and the subsequent ANC celebrations hosted and attended by Mandela for the anti-Apartheid veterans.

The "Vanley Burke Archive" maintained by Birmingham City Council is a constantly growing photographic and documentary community resource of huge range and depth. Complementing his photographic documentation, Burke collects material which samples and evidences developments and activities of the black community in Britain. The material comprises things such as posters or flyers and funeral cards that may have been seen as disposable at the time of their creation but take greater significance when maintained in the context of his extensive archive. They evidence and provide valuable insight of the daily activities and everyday lives, cultural and religious beliefs, the arts, political ideals, health and many other facets affecting black community and others in Birmingham and in Britain. More than fifty years after first picking up his camera, Burke is still documenting the black community in the UK and has recently worked on a number of projects including an exhibition and publication project documenting the Asian community in Birmingham.[9]

From humble beginnings, Burke is often the subject matter of students dissertations and is considered the most renowned and prolific black photographer in the UK, acclaimed as the "Grandfather of Black British photography". Having won a Kodak Award as early as 1984, he has also received an Honorary Doctorate from Leicester University, UK, in 2007, and the Wolverhampton School of Art and Design presented with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Art in 2009[10] at their award ceremony. Professor Stuart Hall endorsed that "the personal, social and economic life of black people as they arrived, settled and became established in British society – is being constructed, given a certain meaning, significance, value, by Vanley Burke's camera eye, not merely 'captured'."

Vanley Burke is a father to three sons, a grandfather to six children.

"It's just about the ability to see something others may be unable to see, in terms of the value. Then show people. They need to see their contribution to this community. I mean, they have been contributing to this thing from the 50s and it's gone beyond, but there is no reference anywhere. It's about having themselves reflected, they are so desperate to see themselves. But this will be there, it isn't going anywhere...." Vanley Burke, September 2005.

The British Library conducted an oral history interview (C459/217) with Vanley Burke in 2014 for its Oral History of British Photography collection.[11]

Burke was a guest on BBC Radio 4's programme Desert Island Discs, first broadcast on 4 November 2018, when he was interviewed by Lauren Laverne and explained his motivation for documenting culture and history.[1]

Solo exhibitionsEdit

  • At Home With Vanley Burke (2015), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
  • Handsworth Culture Swap with Vanley Burke (2013), Soho House Museum, Birmingham
  • By the Rivers of Birminam (2012), MAC, Birmingham.
  • Schools, Colleges, Pubs and Church (2006), Handsworth Park, Birmingham.
  • INVISIBILE: Identity, Disability, Culture Somaliland (2005), Birmingham Central Library, Birmingham.
  • Living Through (2004), Optima Housing Association, Birmingham.
  • Moving Home (2004), Light House, Wolverhampton.
  • Redemptions Songs (2002), Symphony Hall, Birmingham.
  • Five Years = A Life Time (1998), EMACA Nottingham, Nottingham Playhouse.
  • Nkunzi – Photographs of Birmingham and South Africa (1998), Soho House, Birmingham.
  • The Journey (1993), Walsall Art Gallery (1994), Watershed Bristol.
  • No Time for Flowers (1991), Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (1991), Coventry Museum and Art Gallery.
  • Racism in Our Cities (1991), Peterborough Arts Council.
  • Carnival in Exile (1987), The Cave, Birmingham.
  • Sundays are Bloody Awful (1987), MAC Birmingham.
  • The World in Wolverhampton (1986), Wolverhampton Museum and Art Gallery.
  • Connections (1986), Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool.
  • Handsworth from inside (1983), Commonwealth Institute London, Black Art Gallery London.
  • Pan African Congress Rally (1979), Manchester.

Published worksEdit

  • Archer-Straw, Petrine, David A. Bailey and R. Powell (2005), Back to Black: Art, Cinema & the Racial Imaginary. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery. ISBN 0854881425
  • Burke, V., F. Bulbulia and F. Isiakpere (1997), Council of the Elders, A Tribute to the Veterans of South Africa. South Africa: Minaj Publishers. ISBN 9783366572
  • Burke, V. and James, P. (2015), At Home With Vanley Burke. Birmingham: Ikon. ISBN 9781904864981
  • Campany, D., L. Morris, M. Nash and T. Barson (2007), Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now. London: Tate Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1854376829
  • Eshun, K., and A. Sagar (2007), The Ghost of Songs – The Art of Black Audio Film Collective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 1846310148
  • Faulkner, S., and A. Ramamurthy (2006), Visual Culture And Decolonisation in Britain (British Art and Visual Culture Since 1750 New Readings). London: Ashgate Pub Co. ISBN 0754640027
  • Grosvenor, I., R. McLean and S. Roberts (2002), Making Connections: Birmingham Black International History. Birmingham: BPBFG. ISBN 0954371305
  • Grunenberg, C., and R. Knifton (2007), Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-garde. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 1846310814
  • James, P., and C. Upton (2003), A World City – Birmingham. Birmingham: Birmingham City Council Department of Leisure & Co. ISBN 0709302436
  • Mellor, D. (2007), No Such Thing as Society: Photography in Britain 1967–1987. Hayward Publishing. ISBN 1853322652
  • Onnen, S. (2007), Flava: Wedge Curatorial Projects 1997–2007. Canada: WCP. ISBN 097833700X
  • Sealy, M., and S. Hall (1993), Vanley Burke A Retrospective. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd. ISBN 0853157839
  • Sirmans, M., and J. Beauchamp-Byrd (1997), Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966–1996. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Tulloch, C. (2004), Black Style. London: Victoria & Albert Museum. ISBN 1851774246
  • Williams, V., and S. Bright (2007), How We Are: Photographing Britain. London: Tate Publishing. ISBN 1854377140


  1. ^ a b "Vanley Burke", Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 9 November 2018.
  2. ^ Graham Young, "Celebration of an extraordinary decade in history of city gallery", Birmingham Post, 15 July 2014.
  3. ^ a b Watkins, Jonathan, ed. (2015). At Home with Vanley Burke. Ikon. ISBN 9781904864981.
  4. ^ "Vanley Burke", Autograph ABP.
  5. ^ Vanley Burke images.
  6. ^ Legacy Archives, Tyne and Wear. "Spotlight on ..."
  7. ^ Peter James (2002). "From Negative Stereotype to Positive Image". In Alison Donnell (ed.). Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture. Routledge. pp. 119–120. ISBN 978-1-134-70025-7.
  8. ^ Sealy, Mark (1 November 1993). A Retrospective. Lawrence & Wishart. ISBN 0-85315-783-9.
  9. ^ "The Vanley Burke Archive". Birmingham City Council.
  10. ^ "Vanley Burke, School of Art and Design: Honorary Degree of Doctor of Art". University of Wolverhampton.
  11. ^ Burke, Vanley (1 of 4) Oral History of British Photography, The British Library Board, 2014. Retrieved 1 February 2018.

External linksEdit