Stories We Missed: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50

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‘The Photographers’ Gallery at 50′ is one in a series of short essays on events and trends we missed in our 2021 art and culture coverage. Read more – and stories from last year – here.

This is a photograph from January 1971. The founder of the Photographers’ Gallery in London, Sue Davies, shines in her inaugural exhibition, “The Concerned Photographer”. Other footage from the evening indicates the importance of this moment for the small London photography scene of the time: Dorothy Bohm (now a senior British photographer) mingles with photojournalist Thurston Hopkins. Don McCullin (now a household name) leans against a wall. Davies’ smile belied the emotional and financial capital she had invested in creating a gallery dedicated to the medium of photography. But, 50 years ago, in a former Lyon teahouse at 8 Great Newport Street in Covent Garden, she finally made it happen.

Tom Hopkinson gives opening address at the gallery with Sue Davies, 1971. Courtesy of: © The Photographers’ Gallery Archive; photograph: Paul Carter

Davies worked as Exhibitions Secretary for Roland Penrose, co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which had moved from Dover Street to its current location on The Mall in 1968. There, in 1969, she co-hosted the show. ‘Spectrum: The Diversity of Photography’, which contained mostly editorial images, including works by Bohm and McCullin. The ICA had been at the forefront of avant-garde art for decades before, organizing exhibitions such as “Cybernetic Serendipity” in 1968 and performances by Yoko Ono in 1966-1968. Situating photography in this register suggested that critics and the public could view the medium as an art form and photographers as autonomous artists. Irritated by the lack of attention given to photography, Davies sets out to open up her own space.

In the journal accompanying his four-part exhibition series, “The Light Year: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50”, curator David Brittain points out that the creation of the gallery in 1971 was “dependent on collaboration and consent. “. Davies drew inspiration from American institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York – whose first curator of photography, Beaumont Newhall, began collecting photographs for the museum in 1937 – and George Eastman House in Rochester, which opened in 1949. It is fair to say that the United States was ahead of the United Kingdom in understanding the value of the medium as an art form. But, of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and it takes the courage of individuals like Davies and Newhall to advance resources and sustain networks. Artists need galleries as much as galleries need artists.

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‘The Concerned Photographer’, 1971. Courtesy of: © The Photographers’ Gallery Archive; photograph: Paul Carter

It is not easy, in 2021, to imagine an era before the proliferation of art photography. Thus, Brittain’s central consideration when designing the 50th anniversary exhibition is relevant: what was the role of the Photographers’ Gallery in recognizing an art of photography? To address this question, he extracted four of the gallery’s major historical exhibition themes: photojournalism, advertising and fashion, beyond documentary (looking at new artistic developments in photography) and archives. Between 1971 and 1980 alone, Davies organized no less than 150 exhibitions, including landmark presentations like Colin Jones’ ‘The Black House’ (1977) – images he had taken during a three-year stay in a city hall. North London hostel for black youth called Harambee (a Swahili word for harmony) – and EJ Bellocq’s “Storyville Portraits” (1978) of working women in the red light district of New Orleans. The breadth and depth of the programming was vast.

In the 1980s – as Brittain says in a video accompanying the series – fashion took center stage. The gallery saved this change by exhibiting some of the biggest names in fashion photography, including Nick Knight and Cindy Palmano (‘Out of Fashion’, 1989) and ‘Five Years with The face‘(1985). Highlights of the 1990s included Francesca Woodman in 1999 and “Photovideo: Photography in the Computer Age” (1991). It is impossible to summarize the many firsts, important exhibitions and milestones in the history of the Photographers’ Gallery. Suffice it to say he has curated exhibitions of all those worthy behind the lens, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sophie Calle, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn and, currently, Helen Levitt.

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‘Colin Jones: The Black House’, 1977, exhibition poster. Courtesy of: © Les archives de la galerie des photographes

Davies chose to call her space The Photographers’ Gallery, rather than The Photography Gallery, because she wanted her name to convey the idea of ​​collaboration and support within the scene that she did so much to nurture. As a result, her gallery is flourishing today, and to visit her is to experience this collegial and inclusive approach. Exhibits and resources seldom feel alienating; they are always meticulous and often fascinating, festive or confrontational. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind about the gallery’s profound contribution to the discourse around photography as an art form. Davies passed away last year, but her legacy lives on in the gallery she founded 50 years ago.

‘Light Years: The Photographers’s Gallery at 50′ is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until February 2022.

Main image: Five years with the face, 1985, detail of the exhibition poster. Courtesy of: © Les archives de la galerie des photographes

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