Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hits

In 1971, a young secretary at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts lost her temper with her “very snooty” bosses, and walked out to found The Photographers’ Gallery in a former Lyons cafe in Covent Garden. Note the name: “photographers”, not “photography”. Sue Davies wanted to give a forum to artists who worked with the camera at a time when no institutions in the UK, not even the avant-garde ICA, reckoned them artists at all.

Run on a shoe string (Bill Brandt once slipped Davies a GBP50 contribution), her gallery, the first in Britain dedicated to the medium, was pioneering by decades — Tate’s first photography show took place in 2003 — and without pretension: “our aim is to broaden the understanding of photography in the most enjoyable way possible” she said. Light Years: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50, just launched, is a double celebration. At Ramillies Street, a four-part series of historical surveys begins with “Photojournalism: a worthy art for a new gallery”; focuses on fashion, mixed media approaches and the digital revolution will follow through the summer and autumn.

Meanwhile online, 50 Exhibitions in 50 Years is an utterly engrossing decade-by-decade account of greatest hits, full of memories for early visitors.

Colin Jones’ seminal exhibition ‘The Black House’ at the Photographers’ Gallery in 1977Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hitsSocial comedy in the poster for Martin Parr’s ‘The Cost of Living’ from 1990 (C) The Photographers’ Gallery Archive

MoMA New York had shown photography since 1933, and France’s Rencontres d’Arles was already a showcase for the new, but in London, “to find a place that loved photography, it was absolutely exhilarating to go in there” recalls Martin Parr. The dark spaces and monochrome aesthetic felt excitingly countercultural: the young gallery was growing up with Britain in transformation. So these two shows together unfold far more than the gallery’s own story: they chronicle photography’s evolution as a documentary and art form, and how its developments charted, even shaped, social and political change.

In the 1970s, the gallery profiled David Bailey at Vogue, but also cool as a cucumber is a close-up of a black face with a white cigarette, and a pair of black men leaning confidently out of the frame from a Holloway Road doorway — Colin Jones’ seminal series “The Black House”, its radical text suggesting that “today’s younger blacks no longer seek to merge with white society, but to emphasise their racial difference through language, speech and dress”.

Next comes 1980s social comedy — Parr’s moodily atmospheric monochrome “Bad Weather” elevates grey days, drizzle and British stoicism to a ghostly realism/surrealism. The misty bus stops and glistening pavements, scurrying figures and black domes of umbrellas, are comforting, familiar, but the background was a dividing nation, class and gender battles, emerging activism.

Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hitsIRELAND. Dublin.

O’Connell Bridge. From ‘Bad Weather’, by Martin Parr, October.

1981 (C) Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

An extraordinary juxtaposition here is “Striking Women: Communities and Coal” in 1985 — Izabela Jedrzejczyk’s robust Durham miners’ wives in soup kitchens and on picket lines, Imogen Young’s high-spirited lesbian and gay “Support the Miners” party in Neath, south Wales — alongside nudes by metropolitan feminists such as Helen Chadwick and Jo Spence in “The Body Politic: Re-Presentations of Sexuality” in 1987. By the 1990s, the gallery was reflecting a globalised art world.

It began the decade with the inaugural survey of Sebastiao Salgado’s environmental and industrial black-and-white epics, the heaven of nature and man-made hell on earth of sites such as Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mine: thousands of workers, ant-like, pouring up and down the steep, barren rockface; seen in close-up, the skeletal, mud-caked bodies seem to have walked out of Goya or Bosch. Then, one after another, the major late 20th-century American woman photographers had first UK shows here: Francesca Woodman’s raw and delicate experimental images of her young body disappearing into mirrors and sheets; Catherine Opie’s aggressive high-colour sequences of transvestites and transsexuals in regal poses, and self-portraits as her alter ego, butch tattooed truck driver Bo, in “Altered States of America”; innocent and knowing Sally Mann, as controversial for snapshots of her naked children as for recording corpses rotting in the sand in Tennessee.

Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hitsThe poster for Sally Mann’s ‘The Family and the Land’, 2010Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hits. . . and for Sebastiao Salgado’s environmental and industrial black-and-white epic in 1990

The overall narrative of both parts of Light Years, that photographs are fundamental to the making and contesting of history, feels visceral and potent — the freezing of moments which time and chance have filtered as iconic. But if this is a constant, half a century has also wrought for the medium perhaps the deepest transformation of all — that plurality of images has been matched by diminishing faith in their authenticity and efficacy.

“Photojournalism: a worthy art for a new gallery”, concentrating on the gallery’s early years, is thus a deeply nostalgic account. Featuring Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, Davies’ inaugural exhibition in 1971 — entrance fee “4/- (20 n p)” — was called “The Concerned Photographer” and was a simple, almost well-mannered plea for social engagement: “the Concerned Photographer finds much in the present unacceptable which he tries to alter”, curator Cornell Capa wrote.

Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hitsSue Davies, founding director, at ‘The Concerned Photographer’, the gallery’s inaugural exhibition in 1971 (C)

The same year “Scoop, Scandal and Strife”, curated by Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, exploring newspaper photographs as a history of “great events . . . seen embedded in today’s trivia”, wondered “how it must have been to read over the breakfast table . . . of the Russian Revolution”. Evans showcased the Daily Mirror’s front page, 7 April 1917, of tumultuous street scenes, “first photographs to reach England of the lightning revolution in Petrograd”.

Fast forward to a Photographers’ Gallery exhibition in 2000: Boris Mikhailov is on the streets with the bomzhes, the homeless and dispossessed, often nude, diseased or drunk, their expressions zoned-out — casualties of the Soviet Union’s break up. For “Case History”, Mikhailov washed, fed, paid and posed many of his subjects in his modest Kharkov flat, and his unflinching, bleak, complicated images do not shrink from turning the gaze on himself — and us — as exploiting viewer. The ambivalence is worlds away from the earnest optimism of “The Concerned Photographer”.

Doubt — of purpose and authenticity — in the digital age is the photographer’s 21st-century challenge; it is connected to scepticism of political authority, to fracturing cultural identities. Pathetically resembling a stuffed animal, a white tiger, genetically modified in an Arkansas “selective inbreeding” project, paces a concrete platform in a tiny wire enclosure in the poster image for “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”, Taryn Simon’s UK debut in 2007. (A Tate solo show followed in 2011). From the arenas of nuclear security (radioactive capsules at a storage facility), cryptopreservation (corpses held in gleaming white pods), plastic surgery, airport customs depots, death rows, Simon composed an inventory of America through what is concealed, using a large format view camera — open, direct.

Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hitsA poster for Taryn Simon’s exhibition from 2007Fifty years of the Photographers’ Gallery — the art form’s greatest hitsGeorge Rodger and David Goldblatt, held at the gallery in 1974 (C) The Photographers’ Gallery

How to read this cabinet of curiosities?

Is Simon informant or voyeur, campaigner or tabloid sensationalist? Photographers, as these exhibitions distil, thrive by being all these things, and The Photographers’ Gallery has marvellously given them space and voice. To Feb 1 2022,

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