November 28, 2023

LONDON – In 1968 Sue Davies was working as a secretary at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the UK capital when a colleague fell sick and had to finish a photography exhibition they had been working on.

The exhibition, which took place the following year and focused on images of women, was a hit. Visitors lined up down the block to get inside, and Davies asked the institute’s founders if they would consider showing more photography. The reaction is not what she wanted: They only commissioned the last show, they said, because the pictures were offered to them for free.

Davies lost his temper, she later told the British Journal of Photography. So she made a decision: if museums didn’t want photography in their rooms, she’d start her own.

Three years later, in January 1971, Davies opened the Photography’s Gallery in a former tea room in London’s West End. It was the city’s first exhibition space dedicated to photography; Her goal, Davies wrote in her original proposal, was “to gain recognition for photography as an art form in its own right”.

Fifty years later, the Photographers ‘Gallery has succeeded – it is now housed in a larger, five-story building and is celebrating its half-century with a series of exhibitions entitled “Light Years: the Photographers’ Gallery at 50”. February 1, 2022.

David Brittain, a former editor of Creative Camera magazine who curated the anniversary shows, said the gallery “put the scaffolding in place” for photography to be taken seriously in the UK.

Martin Parr, a photographer known for his humorous pictures of British life, echoed this opinion. “Here you could feel part of a community,” he said of the gallery. “It almost became a place of pilgrimage.”

Oliver Chanarin, winner of the gallery’s 2013 Deutsche Börse Prize, said that the Photographers’ Gallery’s greatest achievement “was, in a way, making itself obsolete”. Spaces and museum exhibits are opening across the UK. (Another pioneer, Impressions, opened in York in 1972.)

Davies, who died in 2020, is widely praised for her pioneering role, but the project could easily have ended in disaster. “Sue had to reschedule her house and went without a salary for 18 months,” said Brett Rogers, director of the gallery since 2005, in a telephone interview. (In 1973, Davies told the New York Times, “We are chronically short of money.”)

But the exhibitions she organized soon found an audience willing to pay a small entrance fee.

The gallery initially focused on reporting and showed socially conscious photographs that were shot for newspapers and magazines. Among them were the impressive pictures of the residents of the “Black House”, a London hostel for young blacks, which Colin Jones had taken and shown in a 1977 show.

In the 1980s, the gallery showed work by black photographers, including the group D-Max, as well as more photographs of women. In the 1990s and beyond, thematic exhibitions explored topics such as the role of photography in the computer age and its use in surveillance. There were also shows with star artists such as Catherine Opie, Taryn Simon and Wim Wenders.

The variety of the gallery sometimes turned out to be too much for traditionalists. In 1978 it hosted an exhibition entitled “Fragments” of photo collages by John Stezaker. The artist recalled in a recent phone interview that his cut-and-paste approach was badly received. “I remember the patrons chairman writing a multi-page inflammatory speech against me in the guest book, where he made it very clear that Sue would lose her funding if she continued to promote this junk,” he said.

It was not until 2012 that Stezaker exhibited again at the Photographers’ Gallery when he won the Deutsche Börse Prize. “Sue felt as validated as I did,” said Stezaker.

In the 1980s, the gallery received other kinds of complaints for its youth culture magazine The Face’s photo exhibition. Brittain said some photographers believed that the images glorified consumption and undermined photography’s true mission: to expose social grievances. “It showed the fault lines that crop up between generations,” he said.

Occasionally the controversies were more serious. In 2010 the gallery hosted an exhibition by Sally Mann, an American photographer who photographs portraits of her children, naked and accused of producing child pornography. After hearing about the show, London police investigated but decided the pictures were not obscene. “We defend it as art and always will,” said Rogers, the gallery’s directory.

Two years later, the Photographers’ Gallery moved from its original location near Leicester Square. With two showrooms on either side of a West End theater that were only accessible from the street, the original setup was awkward, Rogers said: When it rained, visitors got stuck, and only one of the rooms had toilets.

The gallery’s current home in a redeveloped warehouse near Oxford Street will anchor a community initiative called Soho Photography Quarter next year to redesign and develop the area.

What role does the gallery play today when photography is so accepted and admired that part of London is being renamed after the art form?

Chanarin, the 2013 winner, said the gallery was “needed more than ever.” Thanks to smartphones and social media, photography has “become a more complex and multi-layered medium,” he stated. Photos are watching us now and the decisions we make just as we look at them, he added, pointing out that apps like Instagram keep a log of every picture a user likes. Spaces like the Photographer’s Gallery are needed to explain the changing context of photography, he said.

Rogers agreed that the gallery’s role was vital at a time when “everyone thinks they are a photographer”. The challenge for the institution, she added, is to say, “Well, what makes a memorable photo that lasts for centuries?”

Despite all the changes, that sounded a lot like Sue Davies’ mission when she founded the gallery 50 years ago: to bring exciting photography to the public and make people want more.