50 Years of Taking Photography Seriously
LONDON – In 1968, Sue Davies was working as a secretary at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the British capital when a colleague fell ill, and she found herself finishing a photo exhibition they were working on.
The exhibition, organized the following year and focusing on images of women, was a success. Visitors lined up to enter and Davies asked the founders of the institute if they would consider showing more photographs. The response, she said, was not what she wanted: They had only ordered the last show, they told her, because they were offered the photos for free.
This made Davies lose his temper, she later told the British Journal of Photography. So she made a decision: if museums didn’t want a photograph in their spaces, she would create her own.
Three years later, in January 1971, Davies opened Photography’s Gallery in a former tea room in London’s West End. It was the city’s first exhibition space devoted to photography; its goal, writes Davies in his initial proposal, was to “gain recognition of photography as an art form in its own right.”
Fifty years later, the Photographers ‘Gallery has succeeded – it is now housed in a larger five-story building and celebrates its half-century with a series of exhibitions, titled “Light Years: the Photographers’ Gallery at 50”, through February 1, 2022.
David Brittain, former editor-in-chief of Creative Camera magazine which organized the anniversary exhibitions, said the gallery had “put in place the scaffolding” for photography to be given serious consideration in Britain.
Martin Parr, a photographer known for his humorous images of British life, echoed this sentiment. “It was a place where you could feel part of a community,” he said of the gallery. “It has become a place of pilgrimage, almost.”
Oliver Chanarin, 2013 winner of the gallery’s annual Deutsche Börse award, said the Photographers’ Gallery’s greatest success “has been, in a way, to make itself superfluous,” noting that it opened the way to many other dedicated exhibitions. museum spaces and exhibitions to be opened in Great Britain. (Another pioneer, Impressions, opened in York in 1972.)
Davies, who died in 2020, is widely hailed for her pioneering role, but the project could easily have ended in disaster. “Sue had to remortgage her house and went without pay for 18 months,” said Brett Rogers, gallery director since 2005, in a telephone interview. (In 1973, Davies told the New York Times, “We are chronically short of money.”)
But the exhibitions it organizes quickly find an audience ready to pay a small entrance fee.
The gallery’s initial focus was on reportage, displaying socially conscious photographs taken for newspapers and magazines. Among these were the striking images of the residents of “The Black House”, a London hostel for black youth, taken by Colin Jones and featured on a 1977 program.
In the 1980s, the gallery featured work by black photographers, including the D-Max group, as well as more photographs of women. In the ’90s and beyond, thematic exhibitions explored questions such as the role of photography in the computer age and its use in surveillance. There were also shows featuring star performers such as Catherine Opie, Taryn Simon and Wim Wenders.
The variety of the gallery has at times proved too great for traditionalists. In 1978 he organized an exhibition, titled “Fragments”, of photo collages by John Stezaker. The artist recalled in a recent phone interview that his cut-and-paste approach had gone awry. “I remember the president of the bosses writing a multi-page rant against me in the guestbook, hinting very clearly that Sue would lose her funding if she continued to promote this garbage,” he said.
Stezaker did not exhibit at the Photographers’ Gallery until 2012, when he won the Deutsche Börse Prize. “Sue felt as justified as I did,” Stezaker said.
In the 1980s, the gallery received complaints of a different kind for its exhibition of photographs from The Face, a culture magazine for young people. According to Brittain, some photographers felt that the images glorified consumerism, undermining photography’s true mission: to expose social ills. “It showed the fault lines that were emerging between the generations,” he said.
Sometimes the controversies were of a more serious nature. In 2010, the gallery organized an exhibition of Sally Mann, an American photographer who takes portraits of her children, naked, and who has been accused of producing child pornography. After hearing about the show, London Police investigated but decided the footage was not obscene. “We champion it as an art, and we always will,” said Rogers, the gallery’s repertoire.
Two years later, the Photographers’ Gallery moved from its original premises near Leicester Square. With two exhibition spaces on either side of a West End theater, accessible to each other only from the street, the original setup was awkward, Rogers said: When it rained, visitors stayed stuck, she noted, and only one of the spaces had a toilet.
The gallery’s current home, in a redeveloped warehouse near Oxford Street, will become the anchor for a local council initiative called Soho Photography Quarter next year to rename and develop the surrounding area.
So what is the role of the gallery today, when photography is so accepted and admired that part of London will be renamed for this art form?
Chanarin, the 2013 award winner, said the gallery was “more needed than ever”. Photography had “become a more complex and layered medium” thanks to smartphones and social media, he noted. Photographs look at us now and the choices we make, as much as we look at them, he added, noting that apps like Instagram save every image a user likes. Spaces like the Photographer’s Gallery are needed to explain the changing context of photography, he said.
Rogers agreed that the gallery’s role was vital at a time when “everyone thinks he’s a photographer”. The challenge for the institution, she added, was to say, “Well, yes, but what makes a memorable photograph of the genre that lasts for centuries? “
Despite all the changes, it was a lot like Sue Davies’ mission when she founded the gallery 50 years ago: to bring exciting photographs to audiences and make them want to come back for more.