BY Sean Burns in Features | 15 DEC 21

Stories We Missed: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50

What role did the institution play in photography’s ascent?

BY Sean Burns in Features | 15 DEC 21

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

It’s a photograph from January 1971. The founder of London’s Photographers’ Gallery, Sue Davies, shines at its inaugural exhibition, ‘The Concerned Photographer’. Other pictures from the evening indicate the significance of this moment for the small London photography scene at the time: Dorothy Bohm (now a doyenne of UK photography) mingles with photojournalist Thurston Hopkins. Don McCullin (now a household name) leans against a wall. Davies’s grin belied the emotional and financial capital she had invested into establishing a gallery dedicated to the medium of photography. But, 50 years ago, in a former Lyon’s Tea Room at 8 Great Newport Street in Covent Garden, she finally achieved it.

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

Davies worked as exhibitions secretary to 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-organised the show ‘Spectrum: The Diversity of Photography’, which contained predominantly editorial images, including works by Bohm and McCullin. The ICA was at the forefront of avant-garde art for decades before this, curating exhibitions such as ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ in 1968 and performances by Yoko Ono in 1966–68. Situating photography in this register suggested that critics and audiences could view the medium as an art form and the photographers as autonomous artists. Angered by the lack of attention given to photography, Davies set about opening her own space.  

In the diary accompanying his four-part exhibition series, ‘Light Years: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50’, curator David Brittain stresses that the gallery’s establishment in 1971 was ‘dependent on collaboration and consent’. Davies drew inspiration from US institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art – whose first curator of photography, Beaumont Newhall, started collecting photographs for the museum in 1937 – and George Eastman House in Rochester, which opened in 1949. It’s fair to say the US was ahead of the UK 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 such as Davies and Newhall to push resources and support networks forwards. Artists need galleries just as much as galleries need artists.

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

It isn’t easy, in 2021, to imagine a time before the proliferation of art photography. So, Brittain’s central consideration when conceiving the 50th-anniversary show is pertinent: what was The Photographers’ Gallery’s role in winning recognition for an art of photography? To broach this question, he has extracted four of the gallery’s overarching historical exhibition themes: photojournalism, advertising and fashion, beyond documentary (looking at new artistic developments in photography) and the archive. Between 1971 and 1980 alone, Davies staged no fewer than 150 exhibitions, including such seminal presentations as Colin Jones’s ‘The Black House’ (1977) – images he had taken during a three-year stay at a north London hostel for young Black people called Harambee (a Swahili word for harmony) – and E.J. Bellocq’s ‘Storyville Portraits’ (1978) depicting 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 moved from the sidelines to centre stage. The gallery registered this shift by exhibiting some of fashion photography’s leading names, including Nick Knight and Cindy Palmano (‘Out of Fashion’, 1989) and ‘Five Years with The Face’ (1985). Stand-out shows from the 1990s included Francesca Woodman in 1999 and ‘Photovideo: Photography in the Age of the Computer’ (1991). It’s impossible to encapsulate the many firsts, significant shows and milestones in the history of The Photographers’ Gallery. Suffice to say, it has held exhibitions by anyone worth their salt behind the lens, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sophie Calle, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn and, currently, Helen Levitt.

The Photographers’ Gallery
‘Colin Jones: The Black House’, 1977, exhibition poster. Courtesy: © The Photographers’ Gallery Archive

Davies elected to call her space The Photographers’ Gallery, rather than The Photography Gallery, because she wanted its name to convey the idea of collaboration and support within the scene that she did so much to nurture. As a result, her gallery today is thriving, and to visit it is to experience that collegiate, inclusive approach. The displays and resources rarely feel alienating; they’re always thorough and often fascinating, celebratory or confrontational. There’s little doubt in anyone’s mind of 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, exhibition poster detail. Courtesy: © The Photographers’ Gallery Archive

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.