Charlie Phillips (photographer)
22 November 1944
Ronald "Charlie" Phillips  is a Jamaican-born restaurateur, photographer, and documenter of black London. He is now best known for his photographs of Notting Hill during the period of West Indian migration to London; however, his subject matter has also included film stars and student protests, with his photographs having appeared in Stern, Harper’s Bazaar, Life and Vogue and in Italian and Swiss journals.(born 22 November 1944), also known by the nickname "Smokey",
His work has been exhibited at galleries including Tate Britain, Museum of London, Nottingham's New Art Exchange, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Museum of the City of New York, and is also in collections at The Wedge, London's Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), as well as the Tate. A portrait of Phillips by photographer Aliyah Otchere was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London in 2021.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Phillips spent his early childhood with his grandparents in St Mary after his parents had migrated to Britain. He developed an early interest in naval matters: "We used to wait for the tour ships to come in and we used to try and sell them something or try and escort them somewhere or show them around Kingston harbour. At that time Kingston was a main shipping port in the Caribbean.... Every afternoon after school I used to go down to the pier and watch different ships coming in. It was the era of big immigration to England." At the age of 11, Phillips too made the journey from Jamaica to England, sailing on the Reina del Pacifico, a Pacific Steam Navigation Company passenger ship: "This was a one of my most memorable experiences.... We visited different ports.... We visited Cuba, Bermuda, and I saw Santander in Spain and we ended up in Plymouth. Ever since then I've had a fascination for ships and docks and the sea."
He joined his parents in London, on 17 August 1956, and the family lived among other West Indian immigrants in Notting Hill, at the time a poor area of the capital characterised by Rachmanism and racism. Phillips recalls: "We lived at number 9 Blenheim Crescent, and we had to share a room with two strangers, in what they called a double room. It was a refuge point for a lot of people who came here and didn’t have anywhere to stay at first." He says: "I was an altar boy at a church called St Michael when Kelso Cochrane was buried [on 6 June 1959] – one of the biggest funerals in Notting Hill at the time. It was just after the race riots and because my parents thought there would be trouble that's the only day I didn’t go to the procession. These were the days where for coloured people it wasn't safe to walk on the street, especially when Oswald Mosley was at his peak."
Phillips worked in his parents' restaurant "Las Palmas" in Portobello Road. Notwithstanding early dreams to become a naval architect or an opera singer, he began his photographic career by accident when, while still very young, he was given a Kodak Brownie by a black American serviceman. Phillips taught himself to use it ("I bought a book from Boots on how to take photos and learnt from my mistakes") and began to photograph life in Notting Hill, making his prints in the family bathroom after his parents had retired to bed.
After joining the Merchant Navy for a while (serving as a galley boy and developing an interest in marine biology and maritime history), Phillips travelled widely in Europe, to Sweden, Switzerland, France and Italy. Caught up in the protest movements of the late 1960s, he took photographs of the student riots in Paris and Rome. He also took paparazzi-style pictures of celebrities including Omar Sharif, Gina Lollobrigida and Muhammad Ali. After meeting Federico Fellini, Phillips was given work as an extra in the 1969 film Satyricon. He worked as a freelance photographer for magazines — "An agency would take some of my work. You'd get two or three quid, which was survival" — and had his first exhibition in Milan in 1972, entitled Il Frustrazi and portraying the lives of urban migrant workers.
Returning to London after several years, Phillips lived "a bohemian life of squats and pop festivals". Described as "A card carrying member of the 'sex, drugs and rock n roll era'", he ended up at a party where he took photographs of Jimi Hendrix but ironically could get no British news editor to publish them. Throughout the 1960s he documented aspects of urban life in Notting Hill and the shifts taking place in the cultural landscape, including racial integration and the birth of Carnival.
Throughout the 1980s, Phillips regularly took photographs that document West Indian funerals, at Kensal Green Cemetery and elsewhere, which have been collected together under the title How Great Thou Art: 50 Years of Afro-Caribbean Funerals. In 1988 he moved to south London and opened a diner at 131 Wandsworth High Street, Wandsworth, called Smokey Joe's, which often featured in restaurant guides, running it for 11 years, while building up a collection of shipping memorabilia but not pursuing his career as a photographer, demoralised by not being able to get his work published.
Notting Hill in the Sixties
A revival of interest in the work of Charlie Phillips came with it being featured in an exhibition at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill, in 1991, coinciding with the launch of his book of photographs Notting Hill in the Sixties. Introduced by writer Mike Phillips (no relation), the book includes photographs of everyday life in the area, covering poor housing conditions, musical entertainment and political activism.
The Urban Eye
Curator Paul Goodwin, speaking of the work in the 2013 exhibition Charlie Phillips: The Urban Eye (a 2014 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize nomination), 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."
How Great Thou Art
Phillips' most recent show, How Great Thou Art: 50 Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London, opened in November 2014 at Photofusion Gallery in Brixton, curated by Eddie Otchere and Lizzy King, with support from Arts Council England's Grants for the Arts Fund.
Hungry Eye magazine stated: "Photographer Charlie Phillips presents a sensitive photographic documentary of the social and emotional traditions that surround death in London’s African Caribbean community. How Great Thou Art represents a lifetime’s work by Charlie." The reviewer for The Root praised the exhibition as "a collection of beautifully evocative, powerfully elegiac images", describing Phillips as "a rare breed who combines the adventurous, pioneering spirit and perennial resilience of the hardy immigrant (he came to Britain in the 1950s) with the sensitive eye of the aesthete and a longing to transmute the banal, the prosaic and the unpalatable in ordinary existence into a thing of ineffable beauty."
Accompanying the publication of a limited-edition book of the same title (successfully funded by Kickstarter), How Great Thou Art has been called "a new landmark in British photography. The question of life and death and the cultural responses to death through funerals in the Caribbean community has featured sporadically in various photographic oeuvres before but no one has explored this subject in such depth and in such a participatory and embedded manner as evidenced by Charlie Phillips." In The Spectator, Ian Thomson wrote: "In Phillips’s moving and often beautiful images, dating from 1962 to the present, the bereaved are seen to face the mystery of the end of life in stush black suits, spidery hat veils, Rastafari head-ties, spiffy trilbies and strictly-come-dancehall white socks.... Anyone feeling a bit like death in the run-up to Christmas should invest in a copy of How Great Thou Art — and feel revivified."
Heart of the Community
Phillips is featured in the art installation by Peter Dunn commissioned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on the Portobello Road north wall, in a series of photomurals celebrating key personalities, history and events of the Golborne and Portobello area over the past hundred years.
Charlie Phillips Take Over
- 1991: Notting Hill in the Sixties. The Tabernacle, London
- 2003: Through London’s Eyes: Photographs by Charlie Phillips, Museum of London.
- 2004: Notting Hill in the Sixties, The Black Hidden History and Heritage of Kensington and Chelsea. Chelsea Library, London
- 2005–06: Roots to Reckoning, Photographs by Charlie Phillips, Neil Kenlock and Armet Francis, Museum of London. Comprising 90 photographs of London's black community in the 1960s–80s, the Roots to Reckoning archive was subsequently acquired by the Museum of London.
- 2013: Charlie Phillips: The Urban Eye, New Art Exchange, Nottingham.
- 2013: Shouting from the Sixties, Film's not Dead, Mount Pleasant, London.
- 2014: How Great Thou Art: 50 Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London. Photofusion, London (7 November – 5 December 2014).
- 2015: Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s – 1990s, Black Cultural Archives, Brixton (January – June 2015), and V&A Museum, London (February and May 2015) — includes images by Charlie Phillips.
- 2015: Simon Schama's Face of Britain, National Portrait Gallery (NPG), London (September 2015 – January 2016). The programme of events complementing the exhibition included "Charlie Phillips: The Unseen Photographs", a conversation with Phillips and Eddie Otchere at the NPG on 3 December 2015, when "not only was every seat taken but the crowd that spilled out on to the stairs also joined in giving [Phillips] a standing ovation at the end of his presentation."
- 2017: How Great Thou Art: Documenting 50 years of Caribbean funerals in London, The Tabernacle (2 November 2017 to 5 November 2017). Q&A with Alex Pascall, 5 November.
- 2021: Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–Now, Tate Britain (December 2021–3 April 2022)
- 2022: Grove Survivors, The Muse Gallery, 8 April–24 April 2022
Notable works and recognition
Phillips' 1967 photo "Notting Hill Couple" appears on the cover of the CD London Is the Place for Me Vol. 2: Calypso Kwela Highlife and Jazz from Young Black London (Honest Jon's Records). It also featured in Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950–1990s, a collaborative exhibition by Black Cultural Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and in the National Portrait Gallery's 2015 exhibition Face of Britain. In March 2016 the photograph was selected by Time Out as one of "The 40 best photos of London ever taken", and was described by the magazine as "a picture that speaks volumes about London living and loving".
Publications in which his photographs are reproduced include Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival (Rice N Peas Books, 2014), which followed from a 2011 exhibition of Notting Hill Carnival photographs curated by Ishmahil Blagrove that featured work by Phillips among others at The Tabernacle.
Simon Schama, in an extract published in The Guardian from his book The Face of Britain, which features images from the National Portrait Gallery's collection, describes Phillips as "a visual poet; chronicler, champion, witness of a gone world ... one of Britain's great photo-portraitists", reproducing "Notting Hill Couple" alongside the article.
Phillips has been called: "Arguably the most important (yet least lauded) black British photographer of his generation", and a January 2015 feature in Time Out London referred to him as "the greatest London photographer you've never heard of – and some of his best works are only just being discovered".
In 2017, Phillips appeared on the BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions, his musical choices including works by Verdi, Puccini, Dave Brubeck, Scott Joplin, in addition to the hymn "How Great Thou Art".
Film and television appearances
- 1991: Notting Hill in the Sixties, London: Lawrence and Wishart. Photography by Charlie Phillips, words by Mike Phillips. ISBN 0-85315-751-0
- 2005: Roots to Reckoning. The photography of: Armet Francis, Neil Kenlock, Charlie Phillips. Seed Publications. Exhibition catalogue with introduction by Mike Phillips. ISBN 0-95105-988-2
- 2014: How Great Thou Art: 50 Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London. London: King/Otchere Productions, 2014. Edited by Lizzy King, with Preface by Mandingo, Foreword by Paul Goodwin, Essays by Empressjai, Michael McMillan, Sireita Lawrence-Mullings and Eddie Otchere. ISBN 978-0-9927117-1-9
- 2015: "Black, White and Colour" in The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits by Simon Schama. London: Penguin. ISBN 9780241963715.
- 2017: Notting Hill in the 60s, Café Royal Books.
Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive project
A website featuring an online archive of Phillips' photographs, curated by Eddie Otchere and with National Lottery funding, was launched in January 2018 as part of the Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive project. In 2021, the Southbank Centre presented a selection of work entitled The Charlie Phillips Archive, together with a short film (which also featured Eddie Otchere).
- Ross Shiel, "Roots to Reckoning – Charlie Phillips engages the past" Archived 7 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Jamaica Gleaner, 9 October 2006.
- Charlie Phillips page at Akehurst Creative Management.
- "Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection. Curated by Kenneth Montague; September 12 through December 28, 2008" Archived 23 November 2014 at archive.today, MOCAD.
- Karen Rosenberg, "Glimpses of Urban Landscapes Past – ‘London Street Photography’ at Museum of the City of New York" (review), The New York Times, 26 July 2012.
- "Charlie Phillips – Victoria and Albert Museum". V&A. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
- "Charlie Phillips – Art & Artists". tate.org.uk. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
- "NPG x201524; Charlie Phillips - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery". National Portrait Gallery, London. Retrieved 25 April 2022.
- "No. 63571". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 2022. p. N14.
- Hughes, David (31 December 2021). "New Year's Honours list 2022 in full: Everyone who received an MBE, OBE, CBE, knighthood and damehood". i. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
- "Charlie Phillips Story", Moving Here Stories, The National Archives. (From a contribution at Reminisence Conference on the History of West Indian Seamen, held at Museum in Docklands, 28 February 2004.)
- "Charlie Phillips On Photography and Untold Stories". 18 September 2021. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
- Ashleigh Kane, "Documenting London’s African Caribbean funerals", Dazed, November 2014.
- "Launch of ‘Rootical: An Audience with Charlie Phillips’", Black History Studies Blog, 11 May 2012.
- "Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner". British Library. 11 May 2021. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
- Rose, Steve (25 March 2021). "Charlie Phillips: why did it take so long for one of Britain's greatest photographers to get his due?". The Guardian.
- Andrew Steeds, "Regrets? He’s had a few … A profile of Charlie Phillips, photographer and contributor to 100 Images of Migration", Migration Museum Project, 26 August 2015.
- Kraemer, Daniel, "Old school photographer Charlie Phillips tells student snappers to ‘take their art to another dimension’" Archived 27 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine, East End Citizen, 23 March 2016.
- Charlie Phillips biography Archived 10 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine, itzCaribbean.com.
- "How Great Thou Art – 50 years of African Caribbean Funerals in London", Photofusion.
- "Charlie Phillips gets 'Rootical' in London’s Portobello Road…", APHROBRIT, 14 August 2011.
- Angela Cobbinah, "Charlie Phillips: Photographer", Thoughts, words and images, 25 October 2012.
- "Important Afro-Caribbean photographic archive acquired for Museum of London with Art Fund help", Artfund, 1 October 2009.
- Hare, Lauren (15 February 2022). "The other side of Notting Hill: black London through the lens of Charlie Phillips". New Histories. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
- "A Black Funeral" by Charlie Phillips Archived 8 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine at the Museum of London's Postcodes Project.
- "How great thou art: 50 years of Afro-Caribbean funerals – in pictures", The Guardian, 25 July 2014.
- Toby Porter (15 December 2021). "Snapper who finally got recognition he deserves". South London Press.
- Helen Fielding, "EATING OUT: The Caribbean cool shoulder", The Independent, 2 April 1995.
- Charlie Phillips, Notting Hill in the Sixties (text by Mike Phillips), London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1991. ISBN 978-0853157519.
- Anne Castleton, "Nine new cross-University professors appointed at UAL" (biography of Paul Goodwin, Professor of Black Art and Design), University of the Arts London, 6 January 2014. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
- "A view through the Urban Eye of Charlie Phillips at Nottingham's New Art Exchange", Culture 24, 19 April 2013.
- Mark Patterson, "Art: Charlie Phillips – the Urban Eye" Archived 7 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Nottingham Post, 25 April 2013.
- ""How Great Thou Art" website". Archived from the original on 7 November 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
- "How Great Thou Art: 50 Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London: Charlie Phillips, Photofusion" Archived 7 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine. Film's not Dead.
- "How Great Thou Art: 50 Years Of African Caribbean Funerals In London", Hungry Eye, 20 October 2014.
- Lindsay Johns, "Photos Capture Caribbean Rituals for Memorializing the Dead" Archived 20 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine, The Root, 17 November 2014.
- Eddie Otchere, "Charlie Phillips presents How Great Thou Art", Kickstarter.
- Paul Goodwin, "The Art of Charlie Phillips", foreword in How Great Thou Art: Fifty Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London, King/Otchere Productions, 2014.
- Ian Thomson, "Death wears bling: the glory of London’s Caribbean funerals" Archived 17 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine, The Spectator, 29 November 2014.
- "Heart of the Community: Portobello Road Arts Project launches", City Living, Local Life, 19 December 2014.
- "Peter Dunn: Heart of the Community", Portobello Road Art Project.
- Peter Dunn, "Portobello Wall, Heart of the Community", ART.e @ the Art of Change – Art in the Public Domain UK.
- "A Charlie Phillips Take Over". Shades of Noir. University of the Arts, London. 11 June 2017. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
- Black Cultural Archives (16 June 2017). "Black Sound festival starts in Brixton". Love Lambeth | News from Lambeth Council. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
- Charlie Phillips – Postcards, MapArt.
- "Exhibitions at Museum of London: Roots to Reckoning, 1 October 2005 – 26 February 2006", Inspiring London, Annual Report 2005/06, Museum of London, Museum in Docklands & Museum of London Archaeology Service, p. 26.
- "Charlie Phillips: The Urban Eye – Hidden stories in the rise of modern multicultural London". Press release.
- Catherine Allen, "Review: Charlie Phillips captures a forgotten Notting Hill" Archived 7 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Nottingham Arts Blog, 12 May 2013.
- "Charlie Phillips – 'Shouting from the Sixties'" Archived 23 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine (1 November–4 December 2013), Film’s not Dead.
- "How great thou art: 50 years of Afro-Caribbean funerals – in pictures". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 July 2014.
- "Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience – in pictures", The Observer, 9 February 2015.
- Ryder, Matthew (8 February 2015). "The black experience: portraits of a community". The Guardian.
- Schama, Simon (4 September 2015). "Face value: Simon Schama on the power of portraits". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
- "In Conversation: Charlie Phillips: The Unseen Photographs, 3 December 2015", National Portrait Gallery.
- "Photography Forum welcomes Charlie Phillips, Jan 12", Inside Croydon, 2 January 2016.
- "How Great Thou Art at The Tabernacle" Archived 7 November 2017 at the Wayback Machine, VisitLondon.com.
- Cumming, Laura. "Life Between Islands review – a mind-altering portrait of British Caribbean life through art". theguardian.com. The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
- "Grove Survivors: by Charlie Phillips". ArtRabbit. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
- "Notting Hill Couple", V&A.
- Dave Hucker, "Young, Gifted, British and Black", from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 5, 2006.
- John L. Walters, "Reason and rhymes: Can design for contemporary jazz, world and experimental music have a meaningful partnership with the musical content?", Eye magazine, 63, Spring 2007.
- "Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s – 1990s". Media Diversified. 13 January 2015.
- "The 40 best photos of London ever taken". Time Out London. timeout.com. 11 March 2016. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
- Anna Lewin, "Fantastic new photobook celebrates the history of Notting Hill Carnival", It's Nice That, 22 August 2014.
- Ishmahil Blagrove and Margaret Busby, Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival (2014, ISBN 978-0954529321), at RicenPeas.com.
- "Photography Exhibition: Laslett’s Carnival" Archived 7 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine (13–31 August 2011). London Theme.
- "#BCAFilmFest Salon: Black Genius + Revolt and Revolution"[permanent dead link], Black Cultural Archives, July 2015.
- Ensall, Jonny. "Out of sight". Time Out London. pp. 27–28. 27 January–2 February 2015.
- "Private Passions". BBC Radio 3. 20 August 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
- "Finally Charlie Phillips and Horace Ové on honours list". Alt-africa.com. 13 January 2022.
- "Top Six Black British Photographers You Should Know". CasildART. 7 February 2022. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
- Portobello Film Festival Report, Counterculture 2006.
- "Neighbourhood Tales: Black And White (2003)" at the British Film Institute's Film and TV database.
- "Notting Hill in the 60s" Archived 7 April 2017 at the Wayback Machine at Café Royal Books.
- Charlie Phillips | "Notting Hill in the 60s" at Akehurst Creative Management.
- Akua Ofei, "DON’T QUIT TALK ABOUT LEGACY", A Nation of Billions, 7 January 2018.
- "Team", Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive.
- "The Charlie Phillips Archive", Archive Studio, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre.
- "The Charlie Phillips Archive". Southbank Centre. 2 August 2021 – via YouTube.
- Official website
- Charlie Phillips biography at Nicky Akehurst Creative Management
- Ameena M. McConnell, "Charlie Phillips gets 'Rootical' in London's Portobello Road" at Black Art in America, 14 August 2011.
- London Is the Place for Me Vol.2: Calypso Kwela Highlife and Jazz from Young Black London, Honest Jon's Records.
- "Charlie Phillips on Notting Hill in the Sixties", The Resident, 22 August 2014.
- Sophie Bush, "‘How Great Thou Art’: local photographer captures Brixton's funeral fashions", Brixton Blog, 13 October 2014.
- "How great thou art: 50 years of Afro-Caribbean funerals – in pictures", The Guardian, 25 July 2014.
- Ruth Waters, "How Great Thou Art: meet photographer Charlie Phillips", Brixton Blog, 31 October 2014.
- TateShots, "Charlie Phillips on Salt and Silver Photography", Tate Gallery, 12 March 2015. Also on YouTube.
- Charlie Phillips on Salt and Silver Photography | TateShots on YouTube.
- "Charlie Phillips - A Photographer's Odyssey". Paddington Central, October 2020.
- "Interview with: The Lost Photographer, Charlie Phillips" (video), The Photography Show.
- "Charlie Phillips talks to Amateur Photographer", Amateur Photographer TV.
- "Charlie Phillips" in conversation with Martin Parr (filmed October 2021), The FujiCast, 28 March 2022.