Letters Archive

Spring 2008, Vol. 16, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Imaging Diaspora: Race, Photography, and the Ernest Dyche Archive

Tina Campt

By Tina Campt

My first trip to Birmingham, England coincided with the 2006 World Cup. As luck would have it, I arrived the day after England had been eliminated from the quarterfinals, and, quite frankly, it seemed like the entire country was in a bad mood. But not Pete. Peter James is the head of photographic collections at the Birmingham City Archives. It was Pete who had unearthed the collection of historical photography that I had come to the archive to see, when he rang the doorbell of a desolate looking building he believed to have previously housed a photography studio that had served the Black and Asian communities in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath for nearly half a century.

An older woman had answered the door on that unremarkable day in 1990. When Pete explained he was researching the Dyche Photography Studio, she had insisted he come in. Moments later, she introduced him to her husband, Ernest Malcolm Dyche. Malcolm Dyche had learned photography from his father, Ernest Dyche, Sr., who had opened the first of two Dyche Studios in 1910. Once inside, Pete realized that the studio he had researched was still more or less in tact. Although the business had closed almost ten years before, the rooms that had once served as the studio were filled with thousands of prints, film and glass plate negatives, and photography equipment dating back to the teens and twenties. Malcolm Dyche died only a short time after Pete’s initial visit; he had been delighted by the interest in the studio and, shortly before his death, had agreed to donate its contents to the City Archives.

On my first day in Birmingham, and over the course of several visits back, Pete James reconstructed for me this history of the studio and the fascinating photographs it had produced. Following the success of the first studio, which initially catered primarily to entertainers and musicians in the theatre district around Bordesley Palace, Ernest Dyche, Sr..had opened a second studio in 1913 in Balsall Heath. The clientele of the studios shifted in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when waves of Caribbean migrants began taking
up residence in Birmingham in response to postwar British immigration policies and employment opportunities. Alongside studios such as the Harry Jacobs Studio in Brixton, the Bellevue Studio in Bradford, or Plant’s, Sam’s or the Oriental Studio in Birmingham, the Dyches were part of a group of studio photographers sought out by postwar Black and Asian migrants who produced portraits of members of these communities that were circulated among families in Britain, the Indian subcontinent, and the Caribbean. Until its closure in the mid- 1980s, the Dyche Studio served as a pivotal, albeit unintended, site of documentation for postwar British colonial migration during this critical phase in the creation of Black Britain.

Back at the archives, Pete led me downstairs into the stacks. We gathered box after box of images and brought them upstairs to the office, where I combed through countless photos with awe and admiration. In the coming days and weeks, I sorted, stared at, scanned, and ruminated over hundreds of portraits that rapidly began to blur in my mind. Face after face of men, women, boy and girl children; parents, siblings, and friends; work portraits, wedding portraits, family portraits; head shots, standing shots, seated shots; close-up, full body, standing pensively, seated demurely— portraits that seemed to form an endless, interchangeable litany.
African Caribbean Couples, Ernest Dyche Collection, BCA

From the moment I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been captivated by the insights these images give us into the cultural dynamics of diaspora. These photos witness black communities practicing forms of self-presentation that reveal the inextricable relationship between how black people ‘image’ and how they ‘imagine’ themselves; they draw attention to the role of photography and portraiture as forms of expressive cultural practice. As art historians
and cultural theorists have shown, visual culture is key to understanding the experiences of blacks in diaspora (Willis 1996, 2000; Mercer 1994; Hall 1992, 1997; Powell 1997; Bailey 1992, 2005). The photographic image has played a dual role in rendering the history of African diasporic communities through its ability to document and, at the same time, pathologize the history, culture, and struggles of these communities. Indeed, it is the equally powerful positive and negative impact of photography that has made it an important vehicle for articulating black people’s complex relationships to cultural identity and national belonging.

Yet when and how does an image of a Black European, or, more specifically for my own work, a Black Briton or Afro- German emerge as part of, rather than deviant from, his or her national cultures? I would suggest that we can, in fact, locate the visual emergence of such Black European national subjects within the frames of some of the seemingly most mundane examples of historical photography— images that are frequently overlooked or taken for granted. That site of emergence is family photography: both informal snapshots and professional studio portraits. My current research engages the family photo as a dynamic and contested site of black cultural formation. It charts the emergence of a Black European subject through the medium of photography by counterposing how two different Black European communities—Black Britons and Black Germans—used photography to create positive forms of identification and community in the first half of the twentieth century in ways that challenged the racist stereotypes that Blacks in Germany and the UK confronted in their daily lives.

Focusing on the family photography of Black Germans from the turn of the century through the 1950s and on the studio portrait photography of Afro-Caribbean Britons in the immediate postwar period, my book in progress, Capturing the Black European Subject, examines how photography became a vehicle through which Afro-Germans and Black Britons wrote themselves into historical narratives of nation and culture. It contrasts the British and German contexts in ways that articulate differences among the respective colonial, post-colonial, and diasporic histories of each country. In each of these contexts, photographic technology became an important site of cultural formation for Black European diasporic subjects.

At the center of my inquiry are three sets of images. Part One focuses on the family photographs (formal portraits, institutional photos, and informal snapshots) of five Black German families in the interwar years and during the Third Reich. Part Two examines two sets of photographs of Afro-Caribbean Britons: first, the 1950s photojournalism of postwar arrival pictures taken of the Windrush generation of migrants from the Caribbean to the UK published in British newspapers (in particular Picture Post), and, second, an archive of images that exemplifies the portraits this community created once established in Britain—portraits produced by the father and son team of Ernest Dyche, Sr. and Ernest Malcolm Dyche. Each of these photographic archives marks a qualitative shift in the representation of Black Europeans, for these images compose alternative meanings of Britishness and Germanness in ways that were decidedly against the grain of dominant notions of the purity of British and German cultural identity. During my residence this year at the Robert Penn Warren Center, my work will focus primarily on the second section of the project, “Imaging Black Britain: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe,” and, in particular, on a close analysis of the Dyche Studio’s archive.

African American cultural theorist Fred Moten articulates an approach to images that emphasizes an attentiveness to “the whole sensual ensemble of what is looked at,” for, as he writes, “the meaning of a photograph is cut and augmented by a sound or noise that surrounds or pierces its frame” (2003 210, 205). Engaging the broader “sensual ensembles” of these particular images helps us account for some of the most important, yet ever elusive, dimensions of the image-making practices of black families in diaspora by focusing on how photography operates in excess of vision and sight. Put another way, what if we set our sights beyond ‘what we see’ as the sole register for understanding the impact of the photo? What if we consider the work these images do (or were intended to do) as more than visual documents? What interests me about these portraits, in fact, are the very things that mark their simplicity and lack of sophistication as visual artifacts— specifically, a seriality and familiarity that makes them register profoundly.

Here, my reference to ‘register’ refers not only to how these images evoke affective connections visually, but also, and equally importantly, to how they resonate and enunciate diasporically in ways that often exceed the sensory range of the visual. In the vocabulary of musicology, “register” is a measurement of the highness or lowness of the pitch of a sound; register is always relative to an instrument’s or voice’s specific capacity to produce a limited range of pitches. For example, one might speak of a soprano’s use of the high, middle, or low registers of her voice, or remark that the low registers of a bassoon rattled the table. Adapting this concept to the field of visual culture, we might similarly think of the photograph as an instrument with a distinct set of cultural, affective, and semiotic registers, which map a range of sensibilities within a given community or culture and that index and evoke the investments and attachments of individual subjects as well. Like the vocabulary of music more generally, the concept of register offers an alternative, extended way of understanding the cultural work of the photographic image.
African Caribbean Portraits, Ernest Dyche Collection, BCA

These photographs cite familiar tropes of individuals attempting to project and portray success, respectability, and prosperity. As an archive of anonymous images that lack biographical information, dates, or other identifying material, these photos register not so much as narratives of individual accounts, but, instead, through the ways they evoke and correspond with things we’ve seen before. What registers first and foremost is their genre: the photographic portrait, which reproduces portraiture techniques and conventions utilized since the late nineteenth century. As part of this larger historical trajectory, they closely resemble similar portraits taken by photographers in former colonial territories in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific Rim—photographs used at the time to validate socalled ‘scientific’ theories of racial and cultural difference. Such images circulated widely throughout Europe (and beyond) as objects trafficked between lay collectors and trained scholars who traded and commissioned them as visual proof of racial distinctions and taxonomies, and they trace their origins to the earliest uses of portrait photography as evidence for hierarchical social and racial differences (Green 1986; Pinney/Peterson 2003; Poole 1997; Edwards 1992, 2001).i These different but related sets of portraits share striking compositional continuities that display photographic techniques common to a generation of photographers—techniques that structured the Western photographic gaze in portraiture of this period.

In contrast to these earlier instances of the transnational circulation of black photographic portraits, postwar portrait photography of African Caribbeans in Britain was circulated not by photographers, scholars, or collectors, but by and among West Indians themselves as a way of connecting them to families and friends separated by oceanic geographic spans. These photographs display a more agential practice of portraiture that resignifies the historical uses of this genre that sought to objectify and silence their non-white, subaltern subjects. The portraits made and circulated within this community display their subjects appropriating photography in ways that witness their attempts to represent themselves as particular kinds of modern agents.

Elaborating on Moten’s concept of “the musics of the image,” these photos are ‘pitched’ to register histories and experiences that activate and anticipate our assumptions and associations. In this way, they map a “structure of feeling”ii that makes these images make sense according to multiple, but quite particular, cultural and historical contexts. That structure of feeling, and one of their most powerful registers, is aspiration: an aspiration to be someone, to be proud and good-looking, respectable and upstanding—an aspiration to middle-class prosperity. Their aspirations preceded these individuals’ migrations but were enabled in new ways through the forms of autonomy transatlantic resettlement produced. These portraits’ register exceeds what they show, as they evoked moments of recognition and affective responses within the circuits of exchange in which they circulated.


If genre is one significant range of these photographs’ register, then what coordinates as a lower range counterpart is the historical register of generation and the use of portraiture as an expressive diasporic practice by West Indian migrants. This archive of portraits features members of the much-celebrated Windrush migration— an event that the arrival of the HMS Windrush, the first of a series of ships that brought countless Caribbean migrants to Britain, inaugurated in 1948, initiating one of the largest and most visible waves of collective migration of West Indians to the UK and ultimately reshaping the iconography of Black Britain in fundamental ways. For, beyond its demographic impact, this migration is distinguished by its extensive documentation as a visual event heralded at an unparalleled popular level.iii From the late 1940s onward, numerous published photographs featured African Caribbean migrants poised to take up the promises of employment and economic prosperity many felt they had earned through their support of Britain in two World Wars. Photojournalism played a critical role in defining how this new population was seen and portrayed. Photographs of Windrush arrivals were published widely in mainstream UK newspapers and magazines—most famously in Picture Post, whose significance in shaping British public perception has been examined in depth most notably by Stuart Hall (Hall 1972, 1992). The images of Afro-Carribean migrants produced by journalists in their documentation of this population’s arrival, settlement, and ‘homemaking’ have made the Windrush migration one of the most iconic representations of Britain’s multi-cultural history in a manner that inscribed these individuals in particular ways in the visual history of postwar Britain.

Picture Post’s visualizations of this generation of West Indian migrants oscillate between the depiction of individuals and groups, shifting restlessly between huddled masses and lone travelers. Both group and individual figurations have deeper gendered articulations. The figure of the lone Black man depicted in these urban (land)scapes is a man alone in he world, yet a man making his own way. Despite the accompanying captions and headlines of concern that ventriloquize the anxieties of a white British public, the gender of his isolation situates him as the agent of his own destiny. These images offer a compelling visual accompaniment to Mary Chamberlain’s acclaimed 1997 oral history of intergenerational Barbadian migration to the UK and of the highly gendered narrative structures revealed in their accounts. Chamberlain highlights the fact that many of her male informants emphasized the spontaneity of their decisions to migrate, which they narrated as tales of heroic adventure or of masculine camaraderie against all odds. Their vivid accounts of agential autonomy retrospectively justified the travails they encountered on arrival in Britain with a happy end of accomplishment through cleverness and self-reliance.

These images extend this theme through the atmospherics of shadow and light (which mimic the jazz bar and its illicit significations) and amplify the risks and loneliness of diaspora that such accounts often attempt to filter out. This image confirms a similar script where the lone male diasporic signifies autonomy, albeit without the economic opportunities that fueled his migration. On the one hand, in the British popular imagination, such an image situates the black male diasporic as perpetually at risk and illustrates the potential dangers of diasporic failure. Those black migrants who did not attain the employment they sought became objects of concern and distrust, as idleness threatened an availability to white femininity in other sites of urban sociality—a threat that reinvoked older discourses of moral panic about the dangers posed by black populations in the metropole and in the colonies (Carby 1992). These journalistic images of the Windrush generation provided another vehicle for the circulation of such moral panics. At the same time, they materialized an older script of Caribbean masculinity in diaspora in which the black male finds affirmation through reputation and the male crew. Here, a sense of self bound up in autonomy and activity links the lone male, as a daring and adventurous sexual agent, to the anonymity of the city and to the culture of the street as a site of asserting difference and autonomy.

Unlike photojournalism’s portrayal of arriving Caribbean migrants, or earlier anthropological photographic depictions of Blacks as social problems or racial pathologies, the images of African Caribbeans taken by studio photographers in this period witness their black subjects engaging and adapting this visual technology as a medium for rendering a positive account of their history. Against the backdrop of numerous images produced by photojournalists in the postwar period, West Indian migrants attempted to tell their own stories of their experiences in Britain through the images they commissioned from private studio photographers. As one of my informants commented:

“When we arrived here in England it was horrible. It was cold and miserable. But we always looked good. Even if you only had one suit or one nice outfit, it was clean. We taught the English how to dress. They used to wear the same clothes everywhere. You don’t wear the same thing everywhere! We had work clothes, and going out clothes, and Sunday Best. Those teddy-boys used to beat up our boys because they looked so sharp. It was not just about race. It was about style!”

sunday best
African Caribbean Portraits, Ernest Dyche Collection, BCA

We see ‘Sunday best’ all over these images; it is, perhaps, the embodiment of this generation of Caribbean migrants’ aspirations to middle class respectability. Sunday best were literally church clothes, but they were also dress clothes with a difference. They were clothes meant for worship in a community with a deeply religious sensibility. Sunday best was attire that stood apart from both the workweek and from leisure time. Sunday best was dressing up, but not showing off; it was clothing intended to be reverent and to show respect for the place and practice of worship, as well as gratitude and humility in the presence of God. Sunday best was a demonstration of faith that signified the fact that, for West Indians in this period, respectability was not just a question of class but also had an equally important spiritual dimension. The version of Sunday best in these images was intended to harmonize back home as a familiar register for the loved ones left behind who received them; it ‘placed’ relatives and friends in a visual context of people ‘keeping faith’ oceans away. These portraits projected upright folk who, in what was seen as the highly secular world far away from their families and community, gave the appearance of maintaining similar values. These images aspire to ‘the good life,’ yet they also perform encoded variations on the tropes of respectability they compose and project. As such they represent aspiration as anything but simple or straightforward. These photographs enunciate stylistic variations in a kind of freestyling that disrupts a desire to hear them playing solely in a genderneutral register of respectability. In these portraits we see elegant fedoras—yet fedoras often cocked carefully to one side. We see cigarettes and zoot suits that straddle the line between Sunday best and ‘Friday night finest.’ We see pens, watches, and other adornments, yet these accessories were frequently not the property of their sitters. Often borrowed or supplied as props by the studios sitters patronized, they were utilized as individual stylizations and coded performances that suggest the bad boys and not-always-sogood girls beneath Sunday best: men and women making their own way on the other side of the Atlantic. We often see rhinestones and other forms of jewelry that appear a bit flashier or at odds with Sunday best. We notice the absence of a usually ubiquitous accessory in this community: crosses. Sometimes we see hems that show a bit more leg than would ordinarily be displayed in and around the pews. In these images, Sunday best often reflects the secularity and autonomy that migration achieved. As much as they image reverent and respectable Caribbean men and women, they also show covertly fly girls and boys winking at the camera and flaunting their autonomy through style.

Unlike in the journalistic portrayals, many of these migrants arrived with the confidence of their accomplishments in the Caribbean, responding to Britain’s calls to employment because they felt they had something to offer as British subjects. The negative reception they encountered was both a surprise and a disappointment. It is the tensions of thwarted diasporic aspiration that these images also reflect. Sandra Courtman points out in her reading of these photos that such images articulate the tensions of diasporic aspiration, as many West Indians failed to find employment at the level they were promised or at equivalent levels to those of white British workers. She cites nursing, one of the primary occupations of migrant labor, as one notorious example of such discrimination:

A Dyche photograph shows a nurse in a starched and immaculate uniform; she proudly carries a pile of textbooks to suggest she is on the way up, advancing her knowledge and training. But it is unclear whether her uniform might be that of a State Registered or State Enrolled nurse […] To read this image culturally would be to acknowledge contradictory evidence about a profession that was to become a prime example of bitterness and disillusionment. Having fought hard in the Caribbean to become properly trained and qualified, women were recruited to nursing, tested in advance of joining and assured of proper career structure. On arrival in England, however, many nurses found themselves relegated to lower status jobs as auxiliaries or cleaners […A] photograph taken in a nursing uniform is [thus] a token of immense pride and a symbol of its wearer’s successful fight against institutional racism. (Courtman 140).

These images express both the hopeful aspirations of diaspora as well as the disappointments that inevitably accompanied them. At the same time, the practice of creating and circulating visual accounts of improvised configurations of self and identity demonstrate a tenacious pride in and retention of those aspirations nevertheless. These portraits’ dissonances thus offer coded indications of the fact that many were not doing quite as well as they’d hoped or appeared. Nevertheless, they wanted to capture and proclaim the often ambivalent accomplishments they did achieve.

The relationship between diasporic musical cultures and image-making practices, and the necessary linkage between the sonic and the visual, offers a particularly illuminating aperture for thinking through diaspora. Similar to Paul Gilroy’s conception of music as a cathartic vehicle of transcendence, these photographs’ aspirational qualities demonstrate a redemptive practice, albeit one where transcendence and redemption are neither escapist nor naïve, but, instead, are pragmatically utopian. The subjects constituted in/through these images aspired to transcend the presence of racism and discrimination— not as an erasure of those realities, but as the foundation for building a better future for others. For what motivated the migration of both this generation and so many others was an explicit and unyielding investment in futurity—a future that would create more possibilities for their children and their communities, as well as for themselves.

The version of diasporic selfmaking that these images compose parallels the call and response lyrics and rhythms of gospel in the black church. Gospel music hails its congregations as both subjects of faith and as subjects of a racialized cultural formation that directly and indirectly references the Middle Passage, enslavement, and racial domination. Gospel articulates a tenacious faith in the face of overlapping histories of hope and despair—histories in which music was a cultural practice of communication and connection, mourning and affirmation. As scholars and practitioners of black music have noted, music, and the cadences of gospel in particular, provided a site of lament and resistance whose rhythms invoked a relationality of struggle and redemption. Those invocations do not merely reference the experience of families and communities separated and dispersed through the Atlantic slave trade, but they produce affective connections between and among them. The imaging practices of black families in diaspora mirror these invocations and these connections. In this way, they enact the parallel tensions of diasporic aspiration and its discontents.

Moreover, if these portraits register the tensions within diasporic aspirations, then the photography studio itself functioned as a space that refracted these dynamics in interesting ways. While the sitters often experienced thwarted aspirations in their daily lives, the Dyche Studio served as a momentary space of exception that pampered and put them in charge. The photographers’ wives received Caribbean migrants at the studio; the Mrs. Dyches, Jr. and Sr., sat with them and solicited their visions of how they wanted to appear. They were offered dressing facilities and accessories to help them achieve their desired look, then were ushered into the studio, where their wishes were communicated to the photographer as part of a collaborative image-making practice. The photographers catered to and crafted their visions of themselves both during the shoot and afterward, when they received proofs that were retouched according to their wishes. These sitters were not only paying customers; they were also empowered consumers and agential subjects.

The studio and these diasporic imaging practices were thus not outside the politics of race and class, but, instead, were a space where race, class, and nation were creative and collaborative enactments that resignified diaspora in both its aspirations and its discontents. As the groundwork for a future generation of Black Britons and the social transformation they would struggle for decades later in the streets of Handsworth, Toxteth, Lewisham, and Brixton. As images intended to present a visual account of their subjects’ successful establishment in Britain, they are multifaceted historical texts that depict the image of life ‘over there’ that these individuals wanted their communities ‘back home’ to see.

These portraits offer an alternate historical account to that of the photojournalism of this period—a story of how, despite the challenges they faced, a proud Black British community emerged that changed the face of postwar England. Photography served a distinctly diasporic function as a bridge that allowed this community to maintain its affiliations to its origins, while also recording its transition from ‘migrants’ to ‘Britons.’ In this way, the Dyche Collection constitutes an invaluable visual archive that demonstrates how and why photography became one of the chosen media through which African Caribbeans forged diasporic identities in Britain.

These are photographic practices that date back to the pioneering, yet pernicious, work of criminologist Alphonse Bertillon and eugenicist Francis Galton and their development of the criminal mug shot and composite photo, respectively. Each used photography as evidence to classify, document, and distinguish ‘innate’ human differences defined as deviant or racially inferior. See Alan Sekula’s seminal essay, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986), 3-64. ii“

[A] felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time … a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living … a common element we cannot easily place.” Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, Pelican: London, 1975, 63-64. See also: Mary Chamberlain’s explication of Williams in the context of Caribbean migration to Britain in Narratives of Exile and Return, Macmillan: London, 1997, 32-33. iiiThe 1948 Nationality Act gave all members of the Commonwealth the right of British citizenship and made the prospect of traveling to the UK a more attractive option for residents of the British Caribbean. Nevertheless, the U.S. continued to be the preferred migrant destination until the implementation of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952, which restricted entry to the U.S. and led to an increase in immigration to Britain. Prior to the 1952 Act, annual immigration to the UK from the Caribbean numbered in the high hundreds. These figures doubled the following year to 2,200, leaping to 10,000 in 1954, to 27,550 in 1955, and peaking eventually at 66,300 in 1961.

Dyche Studio Exterior, Ernest Dyche Collection, Birmingham City Archives (BCA)

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