The Photographers’ Gallery settles in to its new building

Juggling two separate spaces is a thing of the past as The Photographers’ Gallery is finally settling into its new gallery – an intriguing Edwardian warehouse building. Liz Farrelly looks at how the current show engages with these premises

When a favourite place undergoes a major change, there’s always a sense of trepidation: will that special atmosphere be lost, will they get it right? With The Photographers’ Gallery, a special institution on London’s cultural scene, the eccentricity of its previous home was undoubtedly part of its charm, but improvement was long overdue.

Last winter, it finally closed the doors on its home of more than 37 years. Sited between Soho and Covent Garden, in two separate galleries (one a converted Lyons Tea Bar), it had existed in a less than perfect physical incarnation. Curator Clare Grafik explains, ‘We always wanted to be under one roof; with two buildings it was difficult to get people into both.’

Set up in 1971 by Sue Davies, previously of the ICA, on the premise that photography needed ‘a space of its own’, it was the first public gallery in the UK devoted to photography. With the ex-editor of Picture Post, Tom Hopkinson, as chairman of the trustees, the newspaper industry supplemented its financial support, and an unprecedented alliance between the worlds of art and media was forged. The institution has continued to revel in its hybrid status, featuring the fullest spectrum of photographic approaches. Designers Theo Crosby and then Nick England both refurbished those premises, and while intellectually and aesthetically challenging exhibitions were on display, the presence of a café and bookshop helped build a community, providing both formal venues and a place to meet. That personal engagement was underlined by the presence of the print room, with its remit to promote young British practitioners by selling their work, as well as advising new generations of collectors. All profits are ploughed back into the public programme.

‘The block containing the old buildings was bought by a developer,’ continues Grafik. ‘We found this four-storey, Edwardian warehouse, behind Oxford Street, with great proportions, the size and height of the rooms, the floor to ceiling windows. We could do a preliminary refurbishment, as the fabric of the building is very sound.’

Thanks to the modern-day tradition of galleries spearheading urban gentrification, the palette of white-washed bricks and exposed services, familiar from loft and warehouse spaces the world over, is an acceptable backdrop. Plans are in the pipeline though for a major intervention, including an additional storey, but that the gallery is up and running is testimony to the institution’s agility. With the acclaimed Irish architect O’Donnell & Tuomey on board, a firm that •specialises in cultural spaces and sensitive conversions, this already intriguing building may still be improved.

The current exhibition, The Photographic Object, demonstrates the new premises’ ability to accommodate diversity. ‘We now have dedicated exhibition spaces. They’re no longer through-routes to the café or bookshop,’ explains Grafik. This major group show of sculptural works, staged by the in-house team comprising, along with Grafik, senior curator Camilla Brown and exhibition organiser Stefanie Braun, features a cross-generational selection of international artists who use a range of materials and techniques to create beguiling solutions.

Grafik reiterates that all these contributors comfortably straddle the divide between art and photography. The photographic image is integral to their work, but not of primary concern. ‘This is a show about ambiguity and slippage between two and three dimensions. It’s not about photographs made into things’, explains Grafik, ‘but about making surface more dimensional.’

Displaying artworks of varying scale is part of the brief, from Maurizio Anzeri’s tiny, over-stitched vintage photographs to an installation by the work of 2002 Turner Prize nominee Catherine Yass. Her intentionally ‘damaged’ prints, left in the place where she took the image, ‘for example, a canal for a week’, are exhibited on a light table rather than the wall. ‘This is how I work with images in my studio. It reinforces the idea that they are open-ended and part of a thought process’, explains Yass. ‘I don’t regard a photograph as a reliable image of the world, it is always mediated. Treating it as a 3D object maintains an awareness that it has been picked up, put in a camera, a machine or a developing bath. You can see it from the other side and each way of viewing it carries the same validity.’

Opportunities for interacting with the new building are being discovered. Swiss artist Vanessa Billy opted for the ground floor Project Space, creating an intervention in a corridor. ‘I’ve focused on the perception of surfaces in both images and sculptures; real surfaces and surfaces once removed from the real’, she says. ‘I wanted some control over the physical movement of visitors.’ Cutting the space in half with a thin metal strip hung at hip height, her fragile sculptures are distanced and protected. ‘I was interested in the idea that objects turn back into images as a result of being kept away,’ she adds.

With an exhibition that foregrounds process and the physicality of materials, rather than simply displaying rarefied objects, The Photographers’ Gallery continues to explode boundaries. ‘Now we can experiment with the space’, explains Grafik, ‘The new galleries encourage you to stay longer in the space and that provides more time for thinking, with no distractions.’ •

The Photographic Object is at The Photographers’ Gallery, Ramillies Street, London W1 until 14 June

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