The Hackney Flashers were a collective of broadly socialist-feminist women who produced agitprop exhibitions in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“The collective’s original aim was to document women in Hackney, at work inside and outside the home, with the intention of making visible the invisible, thereby validating women’s experience and demonstrating women’s unrecognised contribution to the economy.” (1)
The group evolved out of the radical Photography Workshop in 1974 when two of its members (Jo Spence and Neil Martinson) were seeking women photographers to contribute to a project on “Women and Work” for Hackney Trades Council. (Many of the participants had met previously in the Half Moon Gallery’s 1972 “Women on women” project.) “Women and work” was part of the Trades Council’s anniversary celebrations, with the un-feminist umbrella title of “75 years of Brotherhood“.
1. Women and Work (1975)
This was a series of (mainly) black & white photographs and hand-written text acknowledging the hidden contribution women made to the economy and was a strong statement for equal pay.
Women and Work was first exhibited at Hackney Town Hall, appeared at a Socialist Feminist International Conference in Paris (1977) and was hung in many venues in between.
The group’s self-criticism is refreshingly thorough, firstly about subject matter:
“One comment made about the exhibition was taken to heart – there wasn’t enough on the difficulties childcare presents for women. A small exhibition on childcare facilities was subsequently produced for the Under-Fives campaign in the borough. That was instructive for what it didn’t show. The photographs of nurseries and playgroups were useful enough, but the real issue was the long list of children waiting for nursery places, and unlikely to get them. Hackney, for example, had a thousand children on its top priority waiting list for day-care, to say nothing of all the other under-fives who weren’t considered to be in desperate need.” (2)
And secondly about the medium of photography itself:
“The limitations of documentary photography became apparent with the completion of the Women and Work exhibition. The photographers assumed a ‘window on the world’ through the camera and failed to question the notion of reality rooted in appearances. The photographs were positive and promoted self-recognition but could not expose the complex social and economic realities within which women’s subordination is maintained. We began to juxtapose our naturalistic photographs with media images to point to the contradictions between women’s experience and how it is represented in the media. We wanted to raise the question of class, so much obscured in the representation of women’s experience as universal.” (1)
2. Who’s Holding the Baby (1978)
The second major Hackney Flashers exhibition was more sophisticated in its thinking and style. A designer and an illustrator had joined the group; the collective experimented at workshops and studied the work of John Heartfield when producing montages. These were used alongside a series of photographs documenting Market Nursery in Hackney. The lightweight, laminated panels were ideal for use in non-gallery settings and, as well as the photographs, included colour illustrations and montages. Its first showing was at Centreprise Community Centre in Kingsland Road, Hackney:
“According to Liz Heron, a later member of the collective, the exhibition was intended as an ideological analysis of motherhood and childcare, showing the mutually reinforcing effects of class and women’s oppression, rather than a straightforward documentation of women’s lives.” (3)
For example, the poster Who’s Still Holding the Baby? took the form of montage made up of illicit direct action, cartoons, collage, graphics, photographs and texts:
“This image was entirely constructed and had nothing to do with documentary photography. We graffitied the wall late one night then photographed it. A photograph of a mother and children was laid underneath the hole cut in the print of the wall. Then a banner headline was added. Thus the link could be made between the WHY of struggles for childcare facilities, and the HOW.” (2)
The exhibition toured the country and was included in ‘Three Perspectives on Photography’, at the Hayward Gallery in 1979. (Apparently there was some controversy about this? Tell me about it if you know!)
3. Domestic Labour and Visual Representation (1980)
An education pack (24 slides and a booklet) using the work of the Hackney Flashers; and intended to encourage students’ active, critical participation in the issues.
Who were The Hackney Flashers?
According to Wikipedia: “From the start the Flashers’ output was distributed as the work of a collective. It was a political decision that individual names were never listed, specific images or writing never credited.”
Jo Spence lists the following members (from various eras of the group) in her autobiography:
- Ruth Barrenbaum
- An Dekker (obituary)
- Terry Dennett (curator and owner of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive)
- Helen Grace
- Sally Greenhill (possibly now of the Sally and Richard Greenhill photo library?)
- Liz Heron
- Gerda Jager
- Michael Ann Mullen (went on to be Photography Officer at the GLC and a lecturer)
- Maggie Murray (went on to be one of the founders of Format Photography)Agency)
- Neil Martinson
- Jini Rawlings (who may now be doing this?)
- Christine Roche
- Nanette Salomon (now a professor of Art History The College of Staten Island/CUNY – see comment below).
- Jo Spence
- Arlene Strasberg
- Sue Treweek
- Julia Vellacott (went on to be an editor at Penguin)
(I’d be happy to add to the above and am conscious that membership would have been fluid. The Wikipedia page states that of the two men listed above, Terry Dennett was an observer rather than a member and that Neil Martinson was only involved at the outset)
The group apparently split up in the early eighties, citing political differences – but it seems that many members continued to work with each other.
Jo Spence – Putting Myself In The Picture: A Political Personal And Photographic Autobiography (Camden Press, 1986)
Jo Spence – Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression (Routledge, 1995)
(Both of these are out of print but can be found 2nd hand for reasonable prices if you look long enough. Spence died of cancer in 1992 and her later work documents her illness very powerfully).
Astrid Proll (ed) – Goodbye To London: Radical Art & Politics in the 70s (Hatje Cantz, 2010)
1. Three Perspectives On Photography Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue, (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979), p 80
2. Liz Heron ‘Hackney Flashers Collective: Who’s still holding the camera?’ in Jo Spence and Terry Dennett (eds.) Photography/Politics: One (London: Photography Workshop, 1979, p.124 – quoted at length in Jo Spence’s “Putting Myself In The Picture”.
3. Rosemary Betterton – Maternal Embarrassment: Feminist Art and Maternal Affects. Studies in the Maternal Volume 2, Issues 1 & 2, 2010.