Val Wilmer, a legendary music photographer, captured some of her greatest shots of Fela Kuti, who was known for always being seen in his pants.


In 1963, the photographer captured the Beatles and was impressed by their intelligence and charisma. Shortly after, she also photographed Bob Dylan, who was in his 20s at the time and Wilmer believes she was the only photographer at the concert. Then, in 1967, she had the opportunity to interview and photograph Jimi Hendrix, who she describes as a kind and gentle person. She even gave him a ride in her car.

It is unexpected to hear Wilmer’s perspective on their music, considering that many would have eagerly attended their performances. Wilmer confesses that she did not stay for Jimi’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall, despite recognizing his talent as a guitarist. She admits to having little interest in rock music and likely went to Ronnie Scott’s instead. Interestingly, she mentions that during her interview with Jimi, they discussed the blues and he recognized her strong connection to the genre.

Wilmer’s foray into the field of journalism was driven by her deep interest in African American music, which began at the young age of 17. She recalls eagerly writing to any American musician whose address was featured in a magazine, and was thrilled when Jesse Fuller responded to her letter. This sparked a correspondence between them and ultimately led to Wilmer writing her first piece based on the information he shared with her.

Backstage poker … Muddy Waters in Croydon, 1964.

It appeared in the Jazz Journal, and shortly thereafter, Wilmer began working for other publications and frequently interacting with prominent African American musicians. According to her, the majority of the people she met were kind and supportive. Sister Rosetta Tharpe even gifted her two pairs of earrings. She was incredibly friendly and warm.

Some individuals were not as pleasant. Wilmer spent six weeks in Nigeria and became acquainted with Fela Kuti, who had a particularly bad attitude. She recalls, “He was always in his underwear, which is quite odd to do around others. He had a somewhat authoritarian personality and was not very likable.”

Miles Davis was not known for being charming either. The photographer recalls trying to interview the jazz legend after taking photos at a performance, but he rudely refused. His female companion urged him to speak to her, to which he responded with a typical Miles comment: “I might have if she had lifted her skirt.”

Taking a shine … saxophonist Dexter Gordon in Piccadilly Circus in 1962.

Wilmer has been influenced by blues, jazz, and gospel for most of her life. Even at 81 years old, she remains a strong presence and has had a busy year. One of her recent projects is a photobook titled Deep Blues, featuring a striking collection of African American blues musicians and their communities. The book coincides with the opening of the exhibition Blue Moments, Black Sounds at the Worldly Wicked & Wise gallery in London. Wilmer jokes that this release comes just in time to help her pay for her winter fuel bills.

Wilmer has been a prominent figure in the fields of music, race, women’s rights, minority communities, and cultural movements for a long time. However, she has stopped taking photographs now as she found it tiring to carry around all her equipment. Despite this, she continues to make regular contributions to Jazzwise magazine. She was born in Yorkshire in 1941 and was brought up by her mother in London after her father passed away when she was six years old. At just a young age, Wilmer took her first portrait of a performer using her mother’s Box Brownie camera in 1956.

Wilmer, who still resides in London, remembers, “I had the opportunity to see Louis Armstrong perform at Earls Court. My love for jazz had already been established and my mother kindly supported my interests. When I found out which airport he was leaving from, I insisted on going. To my delight, I was able to meet him and even asked for a photo. This marked the beginning of my journey.”

In 1964, Flamingo, a London-based magazine, sent her on a six-week trip to the Gambia, Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. During this time, she covered a wide range of topics. Wilmer mentions that Flamingo, which had a large distribution in the US, the Caribbean, and West Africa, was actually funded by MI6. However, she quickly clarifies that her work for them was not influenced by any agenda.

Soul queen … Aretha Franklin at Hammersmith in 1968.

If Wilmer had a purpose, it was to record Black musicians while they were working or enjoying leisure time. Her photos, whether of performances or backstage card games like the one with Muddy Waters, are skillfully arranged yet still convey a sense of authenticity. She chooses not to pose her subjects, allowing their true selves to be captured.

She says, “Out of all the musicians I took photos of, BB King was the kindest.” In New York, he invited me and a friend onto his bus as he was leaving for a show out of town. When we returned late that night, BB insisted that we join him for dinner at his home. He woke up one of his daughters and asked her to fry some chicken for us. Then he offered to pay for our cab fare. I said, “B, you’ve already done so much for us – no need for more!” He was a kind, intelligent, and generous person – a role model as both a musician and a human being.

In 1970, Wilmer published her first book, Jazz People. Shortly after, the V&A approached her about an exhibition. To create more powerful images, Wilmer traveled to the southern United States and then stayed with Ornette Coleman in New York for five weeks. This led to the 1973 exhibit Jazz Seen: The Face of Black Music. To celebrate its 50th anniversary earlier this year, the museum included an image by Wilmer – featuring American gospel singers Inez Andrews and Elaine Davis – in their Energy: Sparks from the Collection exhibition.

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In the past, the type of music that Wilmer supported was typically considered to be for a specific audience. In 1977, her book “As Serious As Your Life” was the initial documentation of America’s growing free jazz movement, focusing on the work of Afrofuturist and space explorer Sun Ra, with whom Wilmer had a close relationship.

According to her, Sun Ra had a strong following similar to a cult, with young male musicians living with him and following his instructions. Despite the unusual dynamic, he was friendly and easy to approach. He had a flair for performance and would often put on his glitzy hats when he saw her with a camera. He took great care in his appearance.

Currently, the former rebel is seen as a symbol of hipster culture. His band, the Arkestra, attracts many young fans. “I am amazed by the excitement surrounding his music nowadays, but jazz has evolved so much in terms of how people perceive it.”

Knocked out her attacker … Wilmer in her basement darkroom.

Wilmer, a feminist who identifies as lesbian, dedicated herself to activism during the 1970s and 80s. Along with Maggie Murray, she established Format, a photography agency consisting entirely of women, in 1983. The agency’s photographs, which aim to bring about change, are currently being recognized at the Re/Sisters exhibition at London’s Barbican and the Women in Revolt! show at Tate Britain. However, Wilmer eventually became exhausted from protesting. She explains, “I became worn out from being mistreated by the police and others.”

The exhibit “Blue Moments, Black Sounds” features over 50 photographs capturing musicians and their social circles. These photos are considered some of the best ever taken and Wilmer takes great pride in both them and the relationships she formed. “John Coltrane was a kind and modest man,” she recalls of the renowned saxophonist.

Unfortunately, Wilmer witnessed the dark side of more than just Miles Davis as a musician. In her autobiography Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, published in 1989, she shares her numerous struggles, such as an attempted sexual assault by a well-known jazz trumpeter backstage. Although she was able to defend herself and knock him out, Wilmer chooses not to speak about the incident and his photo is not included in any of her current exhibitions.

She expressed, “I have met a lot of amazing individuals that I can easily overlook the ones who challenged me.”

  • Café Royal Books has released Deep Blues. The exhibit Blue Moments, Black Sounds is currently on display at Worldly Wicked & Wise in London until November 30th.


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