Words Jonathan Velardi
Photography Kate Elliott
“Our overall mission is to inspire and inform audiences to enjoy, understand and discover their own point of view about photography.”
On a narrow aperture between Oxford Street and Great Marlborough Street in the West End stands the capital’s only public gallery dedicated to photography. For over four decades, The Photographers’ Gallery has been devoted to its namesake medium in promoting photography as an artistic equal together with its vital role as a social and historical document.
Since its founding in 1971, in a converted Lyon’s Tea Bar at No. 8 Great Newport Street, in Covent Garden, the gallery has established itself as an international leader for photographic practices across the worlds of art and journalism. Works by the New York-based Hungarian photojournalist, Cornell Capa, inaugurated its exhibition programme with a series entitled ‘The Concerned Photographer’, depicting humanitarian subject matter from around the world. The exhibition’s success of shining light on photography’s ability to educate and empower, as well as to report, subsequently propelled the gallery’s relevance as a new centre worthy of critical attention. Its contextual concern for innovative photographers and the promotion of both British and global emerging talent is a mission maintained to this day.
“We have always been known for the diversity of photography we show,” says Brett Rogers OBE, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery. “Our overall mission is to inspire and inform audiences to enjoy, understand and discover their own point of view about photography.” Rogers, who was appointed director in 2005, navigated the gallery through its most ambitious transformation between 2010 and 2012. Recognising the changing times of gallery operations and visitor expectations, the gallery finalised plans to upgrade from its understated Covent Garden address and relocate to a more prominent residence in Soho with all the trimmings of a twenty-first century London attraction.
While Soho has long been the go-to entertainment quarter for London’s elite from as early as the eighteenth-century, the area’s rich artistic identity had begun to blur, and it endured somewhat of a depression at the turn of the century, with temptations of affordability and white cube aesthetics from the East. It was only a matter of time however, on the roulette of postcode trends, for Soho’s image to come into focus once more as the city’s cultural epicentre. With emerging creative industries flourishing to its North in Fitzrovia and treasured institutional landmarks to its South along Piccadilly, The Photographers’ Gallery chose the northern side of Soho as its new home. Embedding itself in the ‘world’s most creative square mile’ was important, explains Rogers, in understanding photography’s natural relationship with the area’s creative industries of advertising, digital effects and fashion. Appropriately, a fashion warehouse dating from 1910 was chosen as the site of the new gallery on Ramillies Street – a genuine article London backstreet that had retained its bygone attributes and had long demanded pedestrians to forgo their senses for the sake of a short cut to the more tranquil pace of Great Marlborough Street. Today, Ramillies Street is very much a modern backstreet worthy of attention from the naked eye or camera phones alike. What was once an overlooked side street is now decorated with the gallery’s minimalist lines of glass and iron interventions onto the building’s original brick façade, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey, which encase galleries, education facilities, a café and destination bookshop over five floors.
Since The Photographers’ Gallery reopened in 2012, the art world’s compass has been pointing west – a strong signal for the capital’s cultural tide with a steady rise of investment in the City of Westminster concentrated around Soho, Fitzrovia and Mayfair – a message that has not gone unnoticed by the commercial gallery sector. With Jay Joplin’s monumental return to St. James’ in 2006, with White Cube Mason’s Yard, it was the beginning of an influx of both native and international contemporary galleries with an appetite for a West End address. 2010 saw the re-launch of Hauser & Wirth on Saville Row; a former nightclub on Kingly Street was chosen for a new Sadie Coles HQ space, and a Dover Street Georgian townhouse for New York gallery David Zwirner in 2013. Even Victoria Miro – one of the leading figures in diverting the art world’s gaze away from Cork Street to the East End with her eponymous gallery on Wharf Road – returned to the West with a secondary location on St George Street in the same year. 2014 marked Phillips auction house’s retirement from Victoria to occupy its distinguished headquarters on Berkeley Square, and welcomed influential art dealer Marian Goodman to the capital with her very first London outpost off Soho’s Golden Square. In addition to a new Gagosian Gallery due to open on Grosvenor Hill later this year, the West End is experiencing a healthy renaissance with maximum exposure.
The Photographers’ Gallery’s influence to date has been a force amongst the network of contemporary galleries that surround it. For many of the photographers, who had exhibited at the gallery early on in their careers, commercial gallery representation soon followed, with a subsequent acceptance into the art world – a notable shift for the medium’s regard since the ‘70s. “Over the 44 years of the gallery’s existence, there have been a host of outstanding shows; we were the first in the UK to show celebrated photographers such as Walker Evans, David Bailey and the iconic Jacques Henri Lartigue in the 1970s, and Rineke Dijkstr and Andreas Gursky in the ‘90s,” explains Rogers. Gursky, a recipient of the gallery’s prestigious annual international photography Prize in 1998, held the record for the most expensive photograph sold at auction at £2.7 million until last year – only to be eclipsed by Peter Lik whose work exchanged privately for over £4 million. Not only had Gursky’s ‘Rhein II’ earned recognition for the medium’s confidence in execution and scale that had challenged painting’s supremacy, the public attention of such a feat projected photography’s regard and accessibility in one flash. The legitimacy of photography as high art form was nevermore to be questioned.
The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, which has featured the most outstanding figures in contemporary photography, including Richard Billingham, Juergen Teller, Adam Broomberg, and Oliver Chanarin and John Stezaker, is only one of many highlights in the gallery’s exhibitions calendar. Emerging talent is one such subject Rogers specifies the gallery is committed to showcase. “Whether it’s young British photographers, whom we present in our annual FreshFaced+WildEyed exhibition, or in introducing international photographers not yet seen in the UK, such as Jim Goldberg, Taryn Simon, Kay Grannan, Sara Facio, Laura Letinsky and Clare Aho.” Along with a dynamic curatorial interest for analogue and digital processes between the styles of photojournalism, fashion, documentary and the conceptual, modern and contemporary artists who are not primarily known for their photographic practices – Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, David Lynch – to those who work between film and photography, such as Rags Media Collective and Charlotte Dumas, are introduced within a context that promotes the limitless nature of photography, past and present.
A camera obscura installed on the third floor of the gallery grounds, the medium’s genealogy in the face of society’s evolving relationship with the Internet. Rogers is conscious of the digital spectrum photography now plays such a significant role in: from screen-based photo-sharing applications and social media, to the latest facial recognition software being explored by contemporary artists that is revolutionising the face of traditional portraiture. “We remain committed to exploring where the medium is going, both through the shows in the gallery and our digital programme on the Media Wall.” Above all, Rogers is keen to deliver stimulating initiatives within the public realm and capitalize on Soho’s rich history as well as its creative future, viewing The Photographers’ Gallery at the core of this revitalised quarter.