Photo Essay

Poetry in Motion

Flora Nedelcu Smith and Rommi Smith

The world’s photographic archives are a kind of vast orchestra of time, playing 195 years of human memory and experience. Just like songs, archive photographs can be radically transformed by living artists into blazing new relevance.

In 2021, the historic TopFoto photographic archive was home to the award-winning poet, playwright, performer and librettist Dr Rommi Smith, commissioned as the inaugural writer in residence. Arising from that residency Smith curated and interpreted 34 of her chosen photographs from the TopFoto archive, with her own poems and contextual writing inspired by the images, for an exhibition in January at The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, supported by St Edwards School, TopFoto and WritersMosaic, an initiative of the Royal Literary Fund.

Rommi Smith’s archive playground is a vast physical photographic archive of national and international significance held in glass, acetate, prints, where the physical collections begin with glass plate negatives from 1910. Work by the great photographers of the twentieth century such as film director Ken Russell, Roger Bamber, Colin Jones, Grace Robertson, Graham Keen and John Topham nestle in shelves beside unnamed news photographers from the golden age of Fleet Street in the 1920s-1950s.

Any artist taking the plunge into an archive will be driven by their own interests and expertise. This allows for the works – and people – emerging from the shadows, such as John Topham’s unnamed bystander in East London, twelve years before the arrival of the Windrush, to contribute deeply to issues we grapple with today.

Flora Nedelcu Smith is managing partner of TopFoto


Since I first encountered the compelling portrait of a young cricketer by celebrated photographer and filmmaker Ken Russell, (from his 1954 series: Portobello, Scenes of Everyday Life), I’ve been trying to summon the words to reply. I am glad that a commission from WritersMosaic (an initiative of the Royal Literary Fund) gives me this opportunity. This image features as one of 34 I’ve selected for the TopFoto exhibition: Changing the Story: photographs of British Life in Black and White (1917-1962).

The light and shadow of this beguiling moment (in a bombsite-playground on Portobello Road) is translated into silver gelatin. All the colours of monochrome sing: ash grey; cloud white; sable skin. The young boy’s grace and elegance bless Russell’s camera lens; he leans his body into the gesture and Russell’s image moves him from ephemerality into posterity. The cricket bat is a visual metaphor: a staking claim, root, declaration, flagpole. The unfolding match score, “Caught by Tony”, is scrawled in white chalk on a post-war, English wall.  

Lisi Tribble, actor, composer and widow of Ken Russell, wrote to Flora Nedelcu Smith and me after reading a preview of my poem. Her interlocution is a beautiful reply, igniting the poem’s subtext: 

“‘Brighter than the electric cinema’ (how I love the synchronous connection to Ken’s own ‘outsider’ childhood dreaming of movie marquees).”

Outsider status haunts this photograph. And being an outsider has resonance in the context of Azeem Rafiq’s testimony about the institutional racism of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. It is a painful truth that, in exposing the racism of the club, Rafiq has become the twelfth man: a cricketing term for a reserve player. In my poem (an untidy sonnet), I cast this little boy, this Black child, as the twelfth man who does play. The inner world and secret spell of play is written on his face. The industriousness and transformative power of make-believe – its reparative qualities – lie in this child-protagonist’s ability, like Russell, to dream; to run across time and conjure justice. 

Rommi Smith is an award-winning poet, playwright, performer and librettist, and TopFoto’s inaugural writer-in-residence

All images copyright TopFoto.co.uk and available for licensing

 

A WritersMosaic commission in response to the celebrated photographer and filmmaker Ken Russell’s photograph of a young boy cricketer, part of his 1954 series: “Portobello Road – Scenes of Everyday Life.” This image is one of 34 which Rommi Smith has selected, and written about, for the TopFoto exhibition “Changing the Story: photographs of British life in Black and White” (1917-1962), which she has curated at The North Wall Gallery, Oxford. The North Wall is based on the campus of St Edward’s School. You can read more about Rommi at writersmosaic.org.uk which features a live performance of Make-Believe Caught by Tony.

 

Life

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