Exclusive: London’s Photographers’ Gallery Relocates, Reinvents

In December of last year The Photographers’ Gallery relocated to London’s West End, leaving behind two separate locations on Great Newport Street and 37 years of history. But the move to Soho wasn’t an attempt to downsize in the tough economy: The gallery’s four-story home on Ramillies Street boasts twice as much exhibition space and the opportunity to expand. Launching the new space were two exhibitions, Soho Nights, the second part in the Soho Archives series, and The Westerns by Katy Grannan; starting February 20th, you can stop by to check out an exhibition of works from artists shortlisted for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize — including Emily Jacir, who we interviewed here.

After the jump we chat with gallery director Brett Rogers to find out how they settled on a design for the new gigs, why she wants to revive male fashion photography, and what kind of audience she anticipates the latest incarnation will attract.

Flavorwire: Besides the obvious advantages such as consolidation and expansion, are there any other significant factors that provoked the move to Soho?

Brett Rogers: It will help make our program more coherent having everything under one roof; at our openings now people will no longer have to put their drinks down to walk from one space to another. It is going to enhance all of those obvious logistical problems. What we like about this particular location is that we are 20 meters from Europe’s busiest fashion street [Oxford Street] and on the threshold of the new media/new digital area of Soho. Most of Soho today is editing suites, film, and advertising, and they are all the industries that relate to photography. We feel more that this is our natural home rather than Covent Garden. After almost 40 years in a market/garden type area, now we are in a fashion and retail area, and an entertainment area. We are hoping to attract a new audience for those types of constituencies that happen to work around here.

FW: How did you come to work with architects O’Donnell + Tuomey on the new building?

BR: Under the guidelines for new buildings you have to run an international competition. We did not call it a competition; we did an international interview. When we advertised the brief for the new building we asked architects to come and talk us through their ideas rather than come in with a finished plan. We conducted an interview process with seven different architects that were shortlisted and out of that, it was unanimous; there was a jury, that it was O’Donnell + Tuomey.

FW: Can you tell me one thing about their design that made them stand out?

BR: Yes, it was because they responded to the particularity of the space. It is on a very narrow street and they took into account the crack in the wall that links us to Oxford Street. That crack they sort of see as “the change in tectonic plates” between Oxford Street and Ramillies Street. We liked that because it is a very different experience coming down those stairs, from a busy retail street to our little street is a completely different ambiance

FW: Why did you decide to launch the new space with an exhibition by Katy Grannan? What attracted you to her work?

BR: I’ve been interested in Katy Grannan’s work since I saw it a few years ago and I thought this new body of work, which has never been seen before in Europe was outstanding. There’s something about the quality of the light. Her images and her rapport with her subjects which is quite powerful. She creates these images that are very tender but also very disturbing. I thought that they would hold their own in this space and that they would be a very powerful thing, especially by an emerging artist that has never been shown before in this country. Of course, we always like to show some work that is very challenging alongside work that is more accessible which is why we were also showing Soho Nights.

FW: You’ve initiated quite a few groundbreaking exhibitions and we read somewhere that you’re interested in exploring the under represented genre of male fashion photography. Can you talk a bit more about that?

BR: The next show is the Deutsche Börse Prize with four big contenders. After that one of our own curators is doing an interesting show that explores the overlap between photography and sculpture and the reaction against this whole digital era where people just shoot very fast and there’s no interest in the object quality of the photos. Our show, which is called Photography and the Object, looks at the “objecthoodness” of the photographic image. Some of the work is stitched; some of it is creased; some of it is burnt. That’s the idea behind that show which will be from April to June.

And then fashion. Fashion is a big interest of mine because I grew up in Australia in the ’60s and my whole image of the UK was formed through the fashion magazines that I read as a teenager. They gave me an image of this country and the vibrancy of the culture here. I would say for me that was my entree into the world of photography and I still believe that if you want to get people interested in coming to see something like Katy Grannan — who might be a bit difficult for them — one way in is through fashion photography. I believe that fashion photography is a serious art form that requires investigation and can be done intelligently. There seems to be a huge amount of interest all of the sudden in really exploring the limits of fashion photography. Just now in New York at the International Centre for Photography, they have three shows on fashion photography starting this week. So I do think it is in the air.

My big experiment is that because we have moved here to Oxford Street, I wanted to see if we could use London Fashion Week, which happens every summer, to attract people to come down from Oxford Street. Last year we did Fashion in the Mirror. This year we are concentrating on male fashion and male photographers because it is underexplored. When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s there weren’t even magazines that were devoted to male fashion, and look how many there are now. It has been a complete 180 in just 30 years, and we need to explore how that has happened and why.

FW: What effect do you predict the new location will have on your audience?

BR: I am hoping that we attract Londoners, because tourists only come once. We need to attract Londoners, once they find us and appreciate what we have to offer, they will come back. The big thing that we want to do is, have repeat visitors where the loyalty is grown through word of mouth.