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The Photographers’ Gallery reconfigured for the 21st century

Soho Style

Scratch the surface of London arts and find something unexpected: the presence of dynamic women from Australia occupying positions of influence. 

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Ed Sykes

Jules Wright (theatre supremo, gallerist and Wapping Project domina), Rebecca Hossack (art dealer, with a trio of galleries); Kathy Lette (naughty novelist and media personality) and Brett Rogers (director of The Photographers’ Gallery) all hail from south east Australia. It comes as no surprise that the art world, crippled by the passive aggressive nature of British cultural politics, is no match for these straight-talking talents brimming over with the ‘can-do’ attitude of the Antipodes.

Appointed director in 2005, this aptitude for perseverance has enabled Brett Rogers to weather the storms which surrounded The Photographers’ Gallery relocation from its much loved, but outdated home on the edge of Covent Garden to a custom built, multi-level facility in Soho. And it has been a winding road but: ‘I feel it was meant to be’, she says of the compromises forced by the economic recession in 2008 (‘overnight the world just changed’). ‘It was our original aim to demolish Ramillies Street and totally rebuild, but we redesigned(1) and went for a less expensive extension, retaining much of the old warehouse. In fact, we have better gallery spaces with the revised plans, and there is a discernible, lovely atmosphere here. I also think we have avoided a “modern architectural ego statement” that might easily look dated in a few years time.’

Originally, The Photographers’ Gallery was launched in 1971 in a former Lyon’s Tea Room on Great Newport Street by Sue Davies and others (photographer Julian Cottrell claims to remember the exact spot he was sitting when he suggested the name for the gallery). The inaugural programme reflected those times and fashions, with modern master shows by Edward Weston, Elliott Erwitt and J-H Lartigue juxtaposed with group exhibitions: Clive Arrowsmith, Julian Cottrell, Sara Moon and Harry Peccinotti; and Four Masters of Erotic Photography: Haskins, Hamilton, Giacobetti and Shirogama. More serious academic exhibitions were represented by France: 1850-1950 : a Vanished World, and Scoop, Scandal and Strife (a history of newspaper photography).

Revitalised, The Photographers’ Gallery reopened in May 2012 after an 18-month, £9.2m renovation. A bookshop in the basement and an attractive, all-window cafe on the ground floor seduce those taking the pedestrian short cut to the Babylon of Oxford Street. Ramillies Street is a narrow thoroughfare which leads to a wide cul-de-sac of loading bays behind Oxford Street itself, the gallery commands a quiet corner site away from the incessant traffic flow.

This new gallery is a triumph. The independent collective of 1971, dedicated to photography, has matured to become an integral part of cultural London with well over half a million visitors a year. It is a sobering thought that until shown by The Photographers’ Gallery, there had never been a UK exhibition of the work of Jacques-Henri Lartigue – or Irving Penn.

As well as exhibition spaces, The Photographers’ Gallery enjoys a climate controlled, archival viewing room for delicate and fragile material, with an ingenious, large back-projection screen. It also has a rather fabulous throwback to Victorian London, a working camera obscura, built into the third floor and focused on the street below. The £7000 lens can be rotated to take in a 360-degree panorama. Known as the Eranda Studio, it has been dedicated to the memory of fashion photographer, Terence Donovan (1936-96). Additionally, one space in the building is dedicated to exhibiting a single image that will change just four times a year.

Since the gallery re-launch, Brett Rogers has given endless media interviews on the history, present and future aspects of the programme. But she answers repetitious questions with good humour and grace, sitting in her small, unostentatious side office on the first (admin) floor that bustles with a surprising number of staff. She agrees Ramillies Street is a ‘testing location’ but she says positively: ‘once found it is never lost and the cafe will draw people in from Oxford Street itself. I want to create a cultural oasis to encourage visitors inside and then I’ll see if I can convert them...’

The enthusiasm is infectious and her involvement absolute. She eagerly explains the new gallery logo and the controversy over the signs on the WC doors (there are actually eight public loos in the building but it is easy to assume the set nearest the cafe are the only option); and the difficulty in getting visitors to go up in the lift and down the stairs to avoid log jams at busy times. It is almost easy to mistake Brett for the administrator instead of an accomplished fine art academic who left Sydney (she was actually born in Brisbane) to do her MA at the Courtauld in 1980. ‘Australia teaches you that you can achieve anything you put your mind to – not hindered by class or history – it’s very receptive. Australia seems to be democratic,’ she laughs, ‘I do go back every year and things have really moved on there, but photography is still somewhat limited.’

Rogers was schooled in just how political the arts can be during a successful career with the British Council: ‘I set up the photography programme from scratch at the British Council. I also worked with the emergent YBA’s, architecture and fashion – it was wonderful training. You do have to be politically shrewd. Our programme here has to accommodate everyone and, of course, you have to satisfy the funders. Otherwise you will not get repeat support (2). Also, hiring the right staff is important and I am totally involved in appointing the main posts and key people. I am very hands on – it is the director’s job – and you have to take that responsibility and authority. If things go wrong it is down to me.

‘We camped here for 18 months so people could get to know the new site. We were “experiencing it” ourselves too. It was a temporary exhibition set-up but people really liked it. Of course the idea was that when we closed and re-opened it was to this building they returned and not Covent Garden. As a strategy it worked and our 14 month programme was fun and confirmed to us we were in the right place.

‘We have a charitable status because, frankly, the benefits outweigh the restrictions. Major philanthropic donors, trusts and foundations prefer to give to a charity. Like every other arts charity, we cannot run profitable enterprises but, also like everyone else, we have separate companies (the cafe, bookshop, print sales) that gift their profits back to us. It’s workable and the standard way these things are done today.’

The future strategy for the gallery is firmly focussed on the 21st century and the technical innovations that have revolutionised the camera image. Rogers is justifiably proud of the Digital Wall that greets visitors at the entrance. She has commissioned artists like Peter Kennard to explore the digital GIF format and create a specific artwork for the wall in order the gallery can ‘reflect the new ways of curating, editing and re-imaging’ and ‘involve the public as co-producers of some of the work.’ Wendy McMurdo, one of 40 other artists, was also asked to produce a moving image GIF for the wall by Katrina Sluis, the galley’s new curator of digital programming.

Rogers is fond of quoting Susan Bright of Parson’s, New York, who calculated that students were skimming some 6000 images a day, experiencing pictures in a radically different way to 10 years ago and having a changed relationship to the photographic still. ‘The democratisation of photography and distribution of photos via social networks has changed everything, and we, as curators, cannot simply stand back and ignore that,’ Rogers has previously noted.

The Photographers’ Gallery maintains its dedication to the art of the image and is exempt, in some purist way, from the maelstrom of fads and fashion that is so omnipresent at the increasing number of international photo fairs. As photographers cross over into the mainstream of fine art, and painters manipulate the photographic image, parameters cease to exist. It will be interesting to see how those more familiar with the quantifiable world of photography interface with contemporary art and its thirst for sensation and impact.

Being off-site for the 18 months gave The Photographers’ Gallery an identity outside of the gallery confines. Their Street Photography Now project was a great success, being run via instructions on Flickr., that engaged some 20,000 photographers. Rogers sees this interaction as something to develop. She is already in talks with Westminster Council to try and make better use of the street area outside but bulk deliveries to the retailers nearby complicate the issue. The blank wall opposite also exercises her imagination and she envisages projecting all sorts of visual possibilities onto to it. Meanwhile, FreshFaced+WildEyed is the annual showcase for young graduate talents who have been out of college for more than a year – ‘Just when they are asking themselves if anybody is going to take them seriously’ – and a counterpoint to the established artists who usually command attention at Ramillies Street.

It was undoubtedly a gamble to select Soho for a home (there would have been more square footage for the money away from the centre) but one has the distinct feeling that with Brett Rogers at the helm, The Photographers’ Gallery is perfectly positioned to encompass and elucidate all aspects of the most potent visual medium of our time – now and on into the future.

The Photographers’ Gallery. Ramillies Street, W1

Admission Free. Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus


1. Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey
2. The Deutsche Börse Group, hosts an annual European Photography Prize – a prestigious award with a value of £30,000

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