LONDON — Sue Davies was working as a secretary at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the British capital in 1968 when a colleague fell ill, leaving her to finish a photography show they had been working on.
The following year’s exhibition, which focused on images of women, was a success. Visitors queued down the block to get in, and Davies asked the institute’s founders if they would consider showing more photography in the future. The response, she explained, was not what she had hoped for: they had only commissioned the last show because they had been offered the pictures for free.
Davies later told The British Journal of Photography that this caused her to lose her cool. So she made a decision: if museums refused to allow photography, she would start her own.
Davies opened the Photography’s Gallery in a former tearoom in the West End of London three years later, in January 1971. It was the city’s first photography-focused exhibition space, with the goal of “gaining recognition for photography as an art form in its own right,” according to Davies’ original proposal.
Fifty years later, the Photographers’ Gallery has succeeded — it is now housed in a grander, five-story building and is commemorating its half-century with a series of exhibitions titled “Light Years: the Photographers’ Gallery at 50,” which will run until Feb. 1, 2022.
David Brittain, a former Creative Camera magazine editor who curated the anniversary shows, stated that the gallery had “erected the scaffolding” for photography to be taken seriously in the United Kingdom.
Martin Parr, a photographer known for his amusing images of everyday life in the United Kingdom, echoed the sentiment. “Here was a place where you could feel like you were part of a community,” he said of the gallery. “It almost became a pilgrimage site.”
The Photographers’ Gallery’s greatest success, according to Oliver Chanarin, winner of the gallery’s annual Deutsche Börse prize in 2013, “was, in a way, to make itself redundant,” noting that it paved the way for many other dedicated exhibition spaces and museum shows to open around Britain. (Impressions, another forerunner, opened in York in 1972.)
Davies, who died in 2020, is widely lauded for her pioneering role, but the project could have easily gone wrong. “Sue had to remortgage her house and went without a salary for 18 months,” Brett Rogers, the gallery’s director since 2005, explained over the phone. (Davies told The New York Times in 1973, “We suffer from a chronic lack of money.”)
However, the exhibitions she organised quickly found an audience willing to pay a small admission fee.
The gallery’s initial focus was on reportage, with socially conscious photographs shot for newspapers and magazines on display. Among them were Colin Jones’s striking images of residents of “the Black House,” a London hostel for young Black people, which were featured in a 1977 show.
In the 1980s, the gallery featured work by Black photographers, including the D-Max collective, as well as more female photographers. Thematic exhibitions in the 1990s and beyond addressed issues such as photography’s role in the computer age and its use in surveillance. There have also been performances by well-known artists such as Catherine Opie, Taryn Simon, and Wim Wenders.
Traditionalists found the gallery’s variety to be too much at times. It hosted a show of photo collages by John Stezaker called “Fragments” in 1978. In a recent phone interview, the artist recalled that his cut-and-paste approach had not gone well. “I recall the chairman of the patrons writing a several-page diatribe against me in the visitor’s book, implying very strongly that Sue would lose her funding if she continued to promote this nonsense,” he said.
Stezaker did not return to the Photographers’ Gallery until 2012, when he was awarded the Deutsche Börse prize. “Sue felt as vindicated as I did,” said Stezaker.
In the 1980s, The Face, a youth culture magazine, lodged a different kind of complaint about the gallery’s photography exhibit. Some photographers, according to Brittain, felt that the images glorified consumerism, undermining photography’s true mission: to expose social ills. “It demonstrated the emergence of fault lines between generations,” he said.
The controversies were occasionally more serious in nature. Sally Mann, an American photographer who shoots naked portraits of her children and has been accused of producing child pornography, had an exhibition at the gallery in 2010. The London police investigated after learning about the show but determined that the images were not obscene. “We defend it as art, and we will always defend it as art,” Rogers, the gallery’s director, said.
Two years later, the Photographers’ Gallery relocated from its original location near Leicester Square. The original setup was awkward, Rogers said, with two exhibition spaces on either side of a West End theatre, accessible only by street. When it rained, visitors got stuck, she noted, and only one of the spaces had restrooms.
The gallery’s current location, a redeveloped warehouse near Oxford Street, will be the anchor for a local council initiative called the Soho Photography Quarter, which aims to rebrand and develop the surrounding area, beginning next year.
So, what role does the gallery play today, when photography is so widely accepted and admired that a section of London will be renamed after the art form?
The gallery was “needed more than ever,” according to Chanarin, the 2013 prize winner. He noted that, as a result of smartphones and social media, photography had “become a more complex and layered medium.” Photographs now watch us and our decisions as much as we watch them, he added, pointing out that apps like Instagram log every image a user likes. He believes that spaces like the Photographer’s Gallery are required to explain the changing context of photography.
Rogers agreed that the gallery’s role is critical in an era when “everyone thinks they’re a photographer.” The institution’s challenge, she added, was to say, “Well, yes, but what makes a memorable photograph of the kind that lasts centuries?”
Despite the changes, that sounded eerily similar to Sue Davies’ mission when she founded the gallery 50 years ago: to bring exciting photography to the public and entice them to return for more.