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Interview Legendary music photographer

TONY BURKE interviews Val Wilmer on the occasion of an exhibition of her work

THE legendary jazz, blues and music photographer, author and writer Val Wilmer currently has a photo exhibition of her work at London’s Worldly, Wicked and Wise Gallery.

The one-woman exhibition Blue Moments, Black Sounds — A Retrospective features portraits of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters and Aretha Franklin, plus photographs of New York’s free music scene, blues artists, church congregations in America’s Deep South, Nigerian weddings and dances in London, the Notting Hill Carnival, and musicians in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Wilmer founded the all-woman Format photo agency with Maggie Murray in 1983. Her photographs were exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1973, and more recently she has featured in major exhibitions at the Barbican and the Women In Revolt exhibition at Tate Britain.

Among the rare photographs in the exhibition is one of Louis Armstrong. “It was the first photo I took. It was at London Airport in 1956 when I was 14-and-a-half years old. I went with my mother and my brother Clive, then aged 10 and took it on an old Box Brownie. Louis was leaving the UK after a 10 days stint at Earl’s Court. He was on his way to tour Ghana.” 

She first visited New York in 1962: “I went to place called Beefsteak Charlies off Broadway. In the space of around 20 minutes I met the be-bop singer Babs Gonzalez, tenor sax player Ben Webster, drummer Philly Joe Jones and photographed them out on the street.”

Working as the London reporter for the US magazines Hit Parader and Downbeat, in 1967 she photographed Jimi Hendrix at a rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall for an evening gig which also featured The Move, Amen Corner and Pink Floyd.

“My main claim to fame was that I gave Hendrix a lift home in my car!”  

Another iconic photo on display is of global music giant SE Rogie, then a little known “palm wine” singer from Sierra Leone who Wilmer photographed in 1964 in Freetown.

“He loved Jim Reeves and sang like him. Back in 1964 he had his own record label and was known as SE Rogers. When he became famous he was just known as ‘Rogie’!”

Runs until November 30. For more information see: worldlywickedandwise.co.uk.

Wilmer’s work is featured in the book Deep Blues 1960-1988, Cafe Royal Books; caferoyalbooks.com.

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