The early 1970s was an important time for culture, with key developments in art, film and music. The opening of the Photographers’ Gallery in London in 1971 also helped make it a notable period for photography.
The first independent gallery in Britain devoted to the medium is celebrating its 50th anniversary by reflecting on its history through the lens of past exhibitions. Today, the organisation remains strikingly similar to the one founded in 1971 in terms of its mission, aims and what it offers audiences.
Its director is Australian-born Brett Rogers, who joined in 2005 and is one of only four people to have led the organisation. The fact that the gallery is still thriving today is testament to Rogers’ leadership but also reflects the strength of the vision of its founding director, Sue Davies, who was passionate that photography should be recognised as a serious artform.
Brett Rogers was born in Australia and her first role in the arts was as a trainee exhibitions officer at the Australian Gallery Directors’ Council.
In 1980, she moved to London to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
She joined the British Council in 1982 where she established its photography collection and curated a programme of international touring exhibitions. She later became the deputy director and head of exhibitions at the visual arts department at the British Council.
In 2005, Rogers was appointed director of the Photographers’ Gallery in London. In 2012, she oversaw the organisation’s move from Leicester Square to a new home near Oxford Street. Rogers was awarded an OBE for services to the arts in 2014.
“The gallery started out with a very strong-minded female director,” says Rogers. “The original vision that Sue had was to champion photography for everyone and she was so determined because she knew that this was the medium of the future and that audiences needed to see it more regularly.”
Rogers admired Davies, who died in April last year, and the director who followed her, Sue Grayson Ford, for many years before she joined the gallery. Female directors of major arts institutions were unusual at the time and both had a big influence on the institution and photography itself.
Rogers joined the gallery as a trustee just as the board was on the hunt for someone to succeed Grayson Ford. Paul Wombell was appointed in 1995 and remained director until 2005. Rogers’ time as a trustee gave her great insight into the gallery, and she was happy to succeed Wombell. “I knew how well-run it was, I knew it was a very serious institution and I admired its programme and staff,” she says.
Her first dealings with the gallery came through her work at the British Council, which she joined in 1982 to set up a photography programme. Rogers is still a passionate advocate for the impact that the organisation had on the international arts scene.
“At that time, the British Council attracted very inspiring people to work for them, and the council still understood that its primary role was as a cultural institution – rather than using the arts instrumentally to deliver other messages. And you did truly feel the impact of what you did within the arts abroad.
The photographers’ gallery
The Photographers’ Gallery, London, first opened its doors on 14 January 1971 with The Concerned Photographer, curated by photographer Cornell Capa.
It included work by Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, Chim, Andre Kertesz, and Leonard Freed alongside Cornell Capa’s own photographs.
The gallery was founded at 8 Great Newport Street in a converted Lyon’s Tea Bar. Nine years later in 1980, the gallery expanded to include an additional space at 5 Great Newport Street.
The organisation moved to a new home near London’s Oxford Street in 2012.
The gallery has had four directors since it was founded: Sue Davies (1971-91); Sue Grayson Ford, (1991-94); Paul Wombell (1995-2005); and Brett Rogers (2005-present). The gallery is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and attracted 206,741 visitors in 2019-20.
“Sadly, I feel that it has lost sight of its primary cultural remit over the past two decades and, as it is now relatively easy for artists and organisations in the UK to initiate their own dialogues with artists abroad, it no longer needs to play that pivotal role in activating cultural dialogue. What we did in the 1980s was meaningful in so many ways and did change minds and lives.”
Her involvement in developing exhibitions at the British Council also showed her how photography can communicate new stories and ideas, something that is still important in her work today.
“I remember how hard I had to fight when working at the British Council in the early 1990s to get Martin Parr’s The Last Resort shown in Poland as his view of Britain didn’t accord with the usual British tourist Board image and so I did face some opposition, often at embassy level,” she says. “The ability to propose alternative views and present other perspectives is what makes photography so effective as a medium.”
The Photographers’ Gallery runs 12 exhibitions a year, which is a far cry from the early days when Davies crammed 300 shows into the first decade.
“She was really, really busy, and she truly enjoyed doing the exhibitions herself as there were no curators appointed until 1982,” Rogers says. “And just look at the range – it was so Catholic. Sometimes it was photographic postcards, then a community show about the gentrification of Covent Garden, then Elliott Erwitt and Irving Penn, and then suddenly John Stezaker. No wonder people were coming along thinking: ‘What madness am I going to see?’ She took risks, and it wasn’t just fine art photography, it was anything she found interesting. Now, when we think of having to do 30 shows a year, we’re in awe of her.”
But the gallery still aims for a broad range of shows, from documentary and fashion work to fine art and vernacular photography. It also continues to give exposure to photographers working in the UK and overseas who are at the start of their careers.
“Our programme reflects diversity in the broadest sense,” says Rogers. “There is the creative excellence, exemplified by the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, and innovation, of course, which is really our digital programme and the new forms in which photography is now understood and shared.”
The gallery reopened on 17 May after the last lockdown with From Here to Eternity, a retrospective of work by Sunil Gupta, whose socially engaged practice focuses on themes of identity, family, race, migration and the complexities and taboos of sexuality. The second exhibition was Hyperborea – Stories from the Russian Arctic, the first major UK exhibition of the Russian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva.
Rogers says it is important to have two shows running alongside each other and staff think very carefully about this when planning the programme. “My greatest thrill always is when somebody comes in and says: ‘I came to see one artist and it was great, but I actually really adored the other exhibition.’ I love to convert people.”
Simultaneous exhibitions were a big feature of the programming at its old home near Leicester Square, which was spread across two buildings. The organisation was never able to acquire the building in the middle so the gallery moved to a new home in 2012. But having solved one problem the organisation found it had a new one, in that today’s venue does not get much passing trade as it is tucked away down a side street.
Rogers is hoping that this will change now work has started on a project to create public space in the area around the gallery. This is a partnership with Westminster City Council and is part of a wider £150m scheme to reinvigorate the Oxford Street area. The aim is to turn what Rogers calls piss alley into the Soho Photography Quarter. It is due to launch in spring 2022.
“It is going to be beautifully lit, there will be projections on the wall at night and it will be blocked off to traffic,” she says. “It is great that it will provide a safe outdoor space for people to see photography, but we also want those who don’t know we’re here to be inspired by what they see there to walk through the front door.”
The new home retains many elements from the old site in such as a cafe, bookshop and a place to buy prints. Rogers says that Davies believed the bookshop was a place where people could learn as much about photography as in the exhibitions, and she also thought talks, which continue today, were a fantastic way to engage audiences. And print sales continue to be vital. “That’s my passion, as print sales contributes to generating much-needed income for the gallery while also supporting living artists by selling their work,” she says.
The growth of digital technology has created new challenges and opportunities for the organisation and Rogers is proud of the fact she heads the first specialist photography gallery in the world to appoint a curator of digital programmes.
“There’s been a paradigm shift in photography from analogue to digital, which means that most people’s understanding about the medium now derives from the screen and the networked image, which raises all sorts of ethical and cultural issues,” Rogers says. “We want to examine what it means to look at so many images a day, the fact that algorithms dictate what you see next, and how our understanding, knowledge and sharing of photographs is dictated by something we aren’t consciously aware of because it’s so obscured in huge datasets.”
Rogers and her team are also looking at how to monetise some of the gallery’s activities that went online during the pandemic, such as its talks programme. Fortunately, the organisation invested in a new website before Covid.
Rogers says her team learned a huge amount during the pandemic, although things remain extremely challenging.
But for now she is looking forward to the gallery’s anniversary programme. Light Years: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50 kicked off on 25 June and runs until 1 February 2022. The four-part exhibition has been curated by writer, researcher, academic and broadcaster, David Brittain. It will begin with a display looking at why photojournalism was so central to the programme over the first decade.
In a fast-moving digital world that feels a very long way from the photography landscape of 50 years ago when the gallery first opened, Rogers believes the organisation still has an important role.
“Given the speed and force with which images can be shared today, it is vital that the Photographers’ Gallery offers a place to slow it down; to create an arena both on site and online where we can reflect, process, interact, produce and be inspired.”