I first encountered Ingrid Pollard’s photography in a 2017 retrospective of Britain’s Black arts movement in Nottingham – a moment when the aftershocks of the Brexit referendum were still fresh, Trump was new, the English Defence League was on the up and Whitehall officials were describing their vision for Britain’s global relations as “Empire 2.0”. Faced by such a void of political imagination, it felt vital in that moment to look to the work of artists such as Pollard, Sonia Boyce, Keith Piper, Lubaina Himid and Eddie Chambers, who since the early 1980s have been exploring creative ways to stand up to white supremacy from a specifically British point of view. Pollard’s unique contribution to that movement, a beacon for Black engagement with Britain’s rural geography, quickly found a special resonance with me.
Pollard is best known for her work in portraiture and landscape photography. In projects including The Cost of the English Landscape (1989) and Seventeen of Sixty Eight (2019), she questions received ideas of Englishness and brings what Baroness Lola Young has called “simplicity and complexity” to themes of place, race, nation and sexuality.
Pollard decided, around a year ago, to break with London life and moved to rural Northumberland. We had planned to do our interview – to discuss her first career retrospective, at MK gallery in Milton Keynes – there, against the backdrop of Pollard’s new life in the north of England. But about a week before, she has a change of heart: “I’ve only just moved here,” she explains. “It’s not really my home.” So instead, we meet at a cafe near Lea Rowing Club in Hackney, not far from Pollard’s first home in Britain, where she lived after her family migrated from Guyana in 1956.
On the opposite bank of the river from the rowing club, beyond the canal boats and Springfield marina, the Walthamstow marshes open out, a haven for waterbirds and dragonflies. In 1970, as part of an O-level geography fieldwork assignment and using her dad’s camera, Pollard conducted her first photography project here – on the industrial decline of the Lea Valley. “It’s an important landscape in my life,” she says. As we begin to talk, I sense that the decision to meet in London may be because Pollard wants to avoid being painted as a stranger in an unfamiliar landscape. This is a common caricature, she says, based on the misreading of a work made nearly 40 years ago.
That piece is her most famous work – Pastoral Interlude – a series of image-text compositions, made between 1982 and 1987, that pairs photographs of young Black people working or walking in English rural environments with words that sit in uneasy tension with the images. A photographer leans against a dry stone wall, rewinding her film. A naturalist collects specimens from a river. A young woman wanders playfully through a churchyard. Beneath the images, the words point towards things you can’t exactly see – histories of empire and slavery, intimations of dread or vulnerability: “I wandered lonely as a Black face in a sea of white,” reads one of these texts; “searching for sea-shells, waves lap my wellington boots, carrying lost souls of brothers and sisters over the ship side”, says another. Viewing them is a complex experience that, as someone who both inhabits and objects to aspects of English identity, feels familiar to me.
A 2015 article by the writer Robert Macfarlane exemplifies, Pollard says, what irks her about the misreading. Writing about the “eeriness” of the English countryside, Macfarlane cites Pastoral Interlude and assumes that it is Pollard herself who “wanders lonely as a Black cloud…”. This is wrong, says Pollard. “It’s not a caption. [The text and the image] are meant to be in opposition.” She recalls the days spent in Derbyshire taking these images as a time of pleasure. At the time, she was with a friend, one of the models in the photographs. They were taking a little break before heading on to the first Black Arts Convention in Wolverhampton: “They’re holiday snaps,” Pollard insists. “People are happy in those photographs.”
“People immediately say [about Pastoral Interlude]: ‘It’s about alienation. It’s about white landscape, Black people. It’s eerie,’” Pollard continues. “It gets bashed into whatever shape people want to put it in.” By contrast, she sees that piece and her own work more broadly as reflecting a lifelong engagement with the British landscape in all its complexity. Referring to an image from the series where the model sits, camera in hand, on a dry stone wall, Pollard tells me to turn my attention towards the fencing, the hedgerows and the hilltops behind her: “Look at that landscape,” she says. “It’s a managed landscape, the trees have been taken away, there are dry stone walls, there are sheep. Everything about it is fabricated for industrial rural use. The barbed wire, the telegraph pole, the tarmac. Stereotypes about Black people are constructed in exactly the same way.”
For Pollard, the work exposes prevailing myths about the English landscape and Englishness: “People want me to say that I’m alienated because then they can say: ‘Oh, I understand that. Black people should be in the Caribbean or Africa, that’s where they came from.’”
Pollard left her parents’ home (by then in Crouch End) in 1972, and her work emerged out of London’s grassroots culture of the 1970s and 1980s, a scene that nurtured her creativity. She set up in a squat in Bromley and moved through a series of odd jobs – gardener for the local council, telephonist, “grunt at the back of the British Library”. “If you were arty,” she says, “you’d be working in a cafe or something, but people would ask you what your real job was, whether you were a composer or an artist.” A friend knew the family of social historian GM Trevelyan, who had a large house in Langdale Valley in the Lake District where Ingrid and a group of friends would stay twice a year for three or four years: “Because we were an arty bunch,” Pollard explains, “we all tended to have cameras. For one week you’d have one roll of 36, or two rolls if I was feeling rich. It had to last you, so everything was very carefully photographed. Everybody was taking pictures in a slow, slow way. I just got the bug,” she says.
Meanwhile, in London, an ecosystem was starting to take shape around her creative practice: “Someone lent me an enlarger,” she says. “I used to print in the kitchen. There were [also] community dark rooms and screen printing evening classes. It wasn’t about getting an exhibition at the Tate. You were looking for liminal, alternative spaces. You’d make your own things.”
An early exhibition came together at the People’s Gallery in Camden. Shortly afterwards, she landed a job at the Lenthall Road Workshop in Hackney, where she really started to make connections. “That [job] sort of changed things,” she says. The artist Claudette Johnson was also working there. Photographer David A Bailey used to come in. Pollard started doing work for feminist publications Spare Rib and Outwrite. “If [for example] Alice Walker was here and doing a poetry reading, I’d go and photograph her.” Pollard became active within the London lesbian scene – initially a “white feminist world” – but then as part of a Black lesbian breakaway group. She attended the first conference of OWAAD – the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent: “It was mind-boggling,” she says. “There were like a thousand Black women here who called themselves feminists.”
Out of this dynamic social and political context, Pastoral Interlude and The Cost of the English Landscape were created. Time on holiday in different pockets of the countryside revealed blindspots in England’s image of itself for Pollard, an image propped up by a romantic vision of the landscape just waiting to be challenged. “Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were writing about slavery and abolition,” she explains, “but some of Wordsworth’s funding came from people who were involved in slave trading. Dorothy Wordsworth [his sister] writes in her diaries about seeing an African at the gate! There were Black people around. But [the Romantics] just didn’t really write about it.”
Through the 1990s, Pollard’s projects would point towards a growing recognition that all our identities are, like the landscape, equally constructed. The mixed media installation Contenders (1995) is an anatomical exploration of the culture of boxing. Gloves, head guard, bandages – the perfect attunement of the male boxers’ bodies to endure pain and inflict harm – are printed larger than life to loom over the viewer. Pollard evokes a sense of masculinity as something constructed, something made.
More recently, Pollard has returned to the landscape, where the certainty and solidity of stone is called into question. In Landscape Trauma (2001), she presents large format photographs of geological formations taken among the rock-forms of Northumberland. These striking images expose processes in deep time; England’s landscape, she is saying, is itself shaped over millions of years by “a sort of surface trauma” that lies so much deeper than the narratives of human history. Here, violence and trauma give way to fertile spaces and creative possibilities: “ You can grow things in this [section of] land, while you can’t grow things in this [other] land. People farm the land or build because of what is in the soil. Then we mix it together.”
We spot a boat push off the pontoons crewed by four Hasidic Jewish women and I am reminded of Pollard’s latest split-screen film, Rhythms at Hand (2022), which captures dancers and rowers’ bodies in motion. She remarks how things have changed – how you wouldn’t have seen the Jewish community engaging with the boat club when she first started coming here in the early 1990s. Her use of rowing as a motif, she says, also originates here. She recalls how, in 1992, she was so inspired by Steve Redgrave’s Olympics success in Barcelona that she tried to get involved with Lea Rowing Club only to experience so much racism that she opted for the club upriver at Broxbourne instead. Racism, she is keen to emphasise, is a response she has experienced in the English countryside, but also in “London, Belfast, Poland”. For Pollard, it doesn’t define the experience of a landscape, and it never will.
This article was amended on 23 March 2022 to correct descriptions of Pollard’s work.