The B of Beginning

TopFoto Archive



by Rommi Smith: TopFoto Archive Writer-in-Residence, 8 April 2021

Here, really begins in the early spring of 2019.

I am attending the first British American Project (BAP) writers’ retreat and I am making a cup of tea in the farmhouse kitchen. Flora brings in a sepia-toned digital album of photographs entitled: The Smith Collection (part of the TopFoto archive). I note the name on the cover “Smith” and register the metaphors: our shared surname; our resonances and differences. I don’t know, yet, that I am on the cusp of what will be a two-year-conversation. I open the album and am spellbound; immediately struck that what unites these temporally disparate photographs – these stories of people and places across time and space – is the racial diversity of the protagonists in them.

These photos flip-the-script on Britishness: my history lessons did not look like this.

EU056773: July 1917: Nine West Indian Naval officers and sailors headed for what they don’t yet know will be the last year of the First World War; men of the fleet stood with their white British counterparts; black polished boots and uniforms starched with tenacity and duty.
1282031: 14 October 1938: at the forefront of a largely white cheering crowd are three young Black children, their union-Jack’s waving on the breeze; awaiting Queen Mary who is about to open a new extension to Lambeth Town Hall, in Brixton, London.
EU056773: 18 August 1936: London: a group of Black and Brown children leaving Beckton Road, Canning Town, on a United Service Transport bus; headed for Southend, sunshine, happiness – their annual outing (this time to the seaside); childhood faces pressing through windows as open as possibility.

This tryptic, alone, disrupts monoculturalist ideas of Britishness as white and commonplace narratives of Blackness as otherness. Yet beyond these three images, there are hundreds more images in the archive. Each image is a facet of the story of Black Britons: dialogue and encounter; arrival and, to cite Peter Fryer, “Staying Power” (2018). This is an archive of voices. Dr. Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph said of the collection: “[i]t ‘feels’ like there are things in those boxes that are calling to be let out. So, we just need to tune in…..” (2021). At the crossroads where the archive and the present tense meet – here I am: a poet, playwright, performer and scholar; tuning in; sensing the characters and voices; seeing the stories. Looking at the images down the decades, you can hear the whisperings of the past through the porous palimpsest.

I suggest to Flora that an artist-in-residence – or a series of artists-in-residence – respond to the photographic archive, engaging with these extraordinary images taken by photographers including: Ken Russell, Roger Bamber and John Topham. My practice-based PhD research explores methods of Performing the Archive (Osthoff, 2009). I’m fascinated by the ways in which artists bring creativity (as a radical tool) to archival collections. We perform a three-fold task: interpretation, compensation and care. We explore new ways to re-read an archive’s documents; we reply to archival silences through a creative mending of absences and we are – in a sense – mediums in dialogue with its ghosts (Cvetkovich, 2003, p.256).

I am delighted (and I note in these times this word finds itself under duress which makes me doubly want to celebrate reasons for its use) to be the archive’s first artist-in-residence and its first writer-in-residence. I’ll be writing and performing new poems inspired by the voices and stories in the photographs. These poems will be set to original music by composer and musician, Ivan Stott (Hiccup Theatre, 2021). My gratitude to Flora Smith for the invitation to be in residence within the TopFoto archive, and to Flora, Alan Smith, John Balean and the rest of the team at TopFoto, for kind assistance during this creative journey.

Cvetkovich, A. 2003. An Archive of Feelings. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Fryer, P. 2018. Staying Power. London: Pluto Press.
Hiccup Theatre. 2021. Hiccup Theatre Website. [Online]. [Accessed 19 March 2021]. Available from:
Osthoff, S. 2009. Performing the Archive: the transformation of the archive in Contemporary art from repository of documents to art medium. New York, Dresden: Atropos.
Sealy, M. 2021. Email to Flora Smith, 25 January.
Smith, R. 2021. Rommi Smith’s website. [Online]. [Accessed 19 March 2021]. Available from:

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