Zombies in Ramillies Street

Ghouls, zombies and the undead staggered and lunged along Ramillies Street on my previous visit, sprawling on the roadway of this small street down a short flight of steps from Oxford Street, often referred to – as Photographers’ Gallery director Brett Rogers informed us – as “Piss Alley.”

Coming down the steps into Ramillies St

But that was Halloween a couple for years ago, and tonight things in the pristine white space of the temporary home of England’s “flagship photography gallery” were a little quieter, although I was perhaps more apprehensive.

Brett Rogers welcomes us to the gallery

Rogers welcomed us to the new space –  opposite the former home of Keith Johnson Photographic, and like its predecessor on the edges of Soho, but this time at its north rather than east – and waxed enthusiastic about the possibilities it presented for a new building to replace the current temporary conversion. Dublin based architects  O’Donnell +  Tuomey then told us about their early years in London and their plans for a new building, constrained by the small footprint of the site, rising vertically around a lift and stairway, organically (or at least metaphorically) like the branches from the trunk of a mighty oak. (You can read more here – and see a computer graphic view of the new building by clicking on the thumbnail.)

John Tuomey talks about the building as Sheila O’Donnell looks on.

Their presentation was excellent, but I found the futures suggested for the gallery outlined by Rogers rather more chilling, and my doubts were heightened by the work that had been selected for the inaugural showings in this new space.

Like many of those I talked to, I felt that this was a real occasion that should have celebrated English (or British) photography, but it was one that was sadly missed.

I’m old enough to remember Picture Post and its place in lifting the spirits in an age of austerity and rationing, even though in my childhood my family were too poor to buy it. We saw copies at neighbours and friends, read it waiting for a haircut at the barbers, and sometimes people passed on issues when they had read them. Later of course I saw many of its best pictures republished in books, and got to know the work of many of its better photographers, writing features about several of them, including Thurston Hopkins, Grace Robertson, Bert Hardy and Bill Brandt.

It takes great curatorial expertise to mine this rich resource and produce such as turgid, mind-numbing show as was presented on the ground floor of the gallery. All photographers of course have their off-days but on this evidence Picture Post photographers spent most of them – or at least their off-nights – in Soho. But from the evidence we see here it would be difficult to regard Hopkins or Slim Hewitt as anything more than reasonably competent hacks.  And Tim Gidal and Kurt Hutton fare little if any better, and we can see that Ken Russell was well-advised to turn to making films.

As the major show for this major British event I would have hoped for a major show by a well-known British (or British-based) photographer – perhaps one of that long list neglected by the gallery over the years (and there were at least half a dozen of them present at the opening) or one of the great historical figures in photography in this country – such as Bill Brandt or Raymond Moore.

Instead we got Katy Grannan, a USAmerican photographer bron in 1969 who studied with Gregory Crewdson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Tod Papageorge at Yale (one of the more disappointing highlights mentioned by Rogers was the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2009, where Papageorge is a contender with his rather bland images of Central Park, shown at Michael Hoppen  in Chelsea earlier this year – but I couldn’t bring myself to review it, as the most interesing thing was that one image was shown upside down – though Taryn Simon is also on the short list for her Photographers’ Gallery Show – one of their best in recent years, but it is hardly a heavyweight list) graduating with an MFA in 1999.

Grannan had her first gallery shows in 1998, and in 2004 she showed work at Arles, exhibited in the Whitney Biennial and won the 2004 Baum Fellowship Award for Emerging American Photographers. In 2005 she got an Aperture award for emerging photographers, and theypublished her ‘Model Americans.

Grannan is a photographer whose work I’ve previously written about appreciatively in the past, but I think this show, “The Westerns” does little to enhance her reputation. Large images, empty in every sense, at times vapid, with a few little digs in various directions including an unbelievably bad Edward Weston pastiche. You can read an interesting interview on her earlier work at The Guardian by Melissa Denes.

In that earlier work, published in Model Americans in 2005, she photographed people in their homes and other locations,  she worked mainly with strangers (starting to advertise for models in local papers in 1998), coming together for the short time needed for her to arrange them (and sometimes the surroundings) as a stage set on which to photograhp them with her 4×5 camera.   The Westerns is the result of a more lengthy collaboration with three people, including two middle-aged transsexuals, and I don’t feel she has managed to sustain the same level of interest and creativity.  It might even have been a more interesting work had the three people concerned been more conventional in their life-styles; their somewhat exotic nature makes for too easy a cliche.

Grannan is a photographer for whom size matters, and most of these prints seem to me to be oversize. Her work often appeals far more strongly to me on the web or magazine page than as these large wall prints.

Of course there were a good things on show – including Vanessa Winship’s charming portraits (one of the few stars of this year’s Arles, her pictures are also on show in the Royal Festival Hall as a part of the 2008 World Press Photo.) And on the top floor in the Print Sales area, Picture Post came to the rescue with Bert Hardy‘s delightful evocation of a British summer in his Box Brownie view of two young women perched on the promenade rail at Blackpool. It was an image that stood out glowing from what largely seemed to be an ocean of fashionable mediocrity.

I’d gone to the event in an optimistic mood; I’d thought that perhaps the move to a new building represented the possibility for a new start, a new emphasis on photography. Unfortunately the auguries seem bad, and despite the new premises, the gallery seems destined to remain mired in the same old rut.

At the opening – not much depth of field on the 35mm at  f1.4!

As someone who has been a member for around 30 years I find it deeply disappointing that if you want to see photography and a vibrant photographic culture you need to look elsewhere, whether to smaller London galleries such as HOST or by taking a trip to Paris.  (see Paris and London: MEP & PG)

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