The Broader Picture: Shooting straight in the dark

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A CURIOUS thing, really: how a 12-year-old English girl, born in 1941, brought up in a straitened but respectable middle-class London home, her father born while Victoria was still on the throne, should have developed an obsession with black American jazz.

Val Wilmer bought her first record in 1953 (Humphrey Lyttelton: 'Fidgety Feet'), and by the age of 15 had decided to write her first book, a biography of one of Louis Armstrong's clarinetists, Johnny Dodds. In the same year, 1956, Armstrong came to London and Val bought tickets for her mother and little brother Clive: 'Suddenly there was Louis: small, polite and friendly, in a speckled tweed jacket and green on white tartan shirt. He signed autographs for us and posed for a couple of pictures. I was still using my mother's box Brownie, but I felt like Karsh of Ottawa.'

The details of Wilmer's life - to which she gives the self-parodic tag 'white girl-snaps-black jazzers' - have drawn plenty of comment over the years, not least from fellow-feminist and fellow-lesbian Bea Campbell. She said that I 'seemed like an interesting woman', Wilmer recalls. Under the circumstances, Campbell was underplaying it. When Wilmer started work as a music writer and photographer in the mid-Fifties, it was hard to tell which prejudice was the strongest: the racism faced by black musicians or the chauvinism encountered by a woman photographer who hung out in nightclubs.

Working as a journalist, she travelled from Soho to Paris, then to West Africa, and eventually, inevitably, to New York, and the American South, where she found a degree of poverty that shocked any romantic blues fantasies right out of her head. Her photographs of musicians from these trips are now part of the history of black culture. She was always interested in the documentary elements; she always liked the people as much as the music. Even back in the early days, she always invited her heroes home for tea - and they came.

The home, really, is the key. Her father, 22 years older than his wife, died when Val was seven, so, with two children to look after, her mother took in lodgers (but not black ones). Into this boarding-house culture came Michael and Diana; they had separate rooms but shared a love of popular music that they passed on to the landlady's daughter.

It's been 20 years since her last major London exhibition of photographs. In her self-deprecating way, she'd probably say that politics and writing have taken up a lot of her time since then, that she doesn't spend as much time in the darkroom as she should. But these two pictures, of a couple dancing in Bentonia, Mississippi - home of the famous blues guitarist Skip James - in 1976, and of the pianist Thelonious Monk, in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard club in New York in 1971, show some of her skills. What light there is catches the moment of abandon in Mississippi; the introspection of Monk off- stage; and with Monk, at least, there's a glint of hostility that makes you realise how tough it might have been to be a woman with a camera in a corner.

'Jazz Roots and Branches', a show of Val Wilmer's photographs, starts on Thursday at the Special Photographers' Gallery, 21 Kensington Park Rd, W11

(Photographs omitted)