London city guide

Top five photography galleries

Selected by Tim Clark and Thomas King

As the dust settles on Photo London 2024 and Peckham 24 – the capital’s two key points of reference within the UK photography calendar – we benchmark five leading London galleries and museums who are making a sustained effort to create productive and welcoming spaces for the encounter, use and consideration of photography today.


Tim Clark with Thomas King | City guide | 14 June 2024 | In association with MPB

At a time when the funding climate in the UK is at its least favourable in decades, setting up – let alone sustaining – a gallery dedicated to the art of photography, public or otherwise, is far from straightforward. The sector is currently groaning under the weight of government funding cuts, exorbitant energy bills, messy logistical and bureaucratic ramifications arising from Brexit, the fallout of the pandemic and cost of living crisis; not to mention the constant undermining of the arts in education in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at the hand of the outgoing Tory party, allied with pedalling culture wars and all round anathema.

Yet, despite – and even in spite of – these significant challenges, the UK government’s own estimates show that the creative industries generated £126 billion in gross value added to the economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022 alone. A global leader clearly, but one that is woefully underfunded, leaving an increasing amount of arts organisations out to dry as they struggle to thrive in one of the world’s most expensive cities. In a parallel universe, the city of Berlin’s culture budget for 2024 is set at €947 million (with a population of 3.56 million) while the entire culture budget for England in 2024 pales in comparison at £458.5 million (with a population of 57 million): two wildly different per capita spends.

Meanwhile, in March this year, opposition party leader Kier Starmer spoke at the Labour Creatives Conference claiming he would “build a new Britain out of the ashes of the failed Tory project” and restore, what he called, the UK’s “diminished” status on the global stage. His top line pledges were as follows: getting art and design courses back on the curriculum, supporting freelancers’ rights, cracking down on ticket touting and improving access to creative apprenticeships. Essentially, promising to ensure creative skills are a necessity, not a luxury. To use the creative industries as a form of soft power. But it will require a detailed arts strategy coupled with fierce and charismatic advocates, and, crucially, increases in funding for the arts to European levels to get the UK’s cultural infrastructure back on sturdier ground. It is nothing short of a miracle, then, to have London gallery and museum spaces fully participating in a civic society at such a high calibre level.

What follows is a rundown of five leading London galleries and museums who are making a sustained effort to create productive and welcoming spaces for the encounter, use and consideration of photography today. It should be noted that there are a handful of medium specific spaces that haven’t been included, but doubtless could be. Among them: the ambitious British Centre for Photography currently looking for a permanent home; Tate, whose new Senior Curator of Photography and International Art, Singaporean Charmaine Toh, is just a few months in post; beloved and sorely missed Seen Fifteen (its founding director Vivienne Gamble now channels her energies towards growing the annual photography festival Peckham 24); Webber Gallery, which has seemingly shifted the emphasis of its exhibitions’ focus to a vast Los Angeles space; not neglecting to mention stalwart dealer Michael Hoppen whose eponymous gallery no longer operates from its multi-floor premises on Jubilee Place, instead opting for a location in Holland Park. Hopefully that goes some way to account for their omissions. There are other bricks and mortar spaces too: Hamiltons, MMX, Atlas, IWM’s Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, TJ Boutling, Huxley-Parlour, Leica, Photofusion, Albumen, Purdy Hicks, Camera Eye, Augusta Edwards Fine Art and Doyle Wham, all worthy of a mention and giving much cause for celebration.

Autograph

Autograph
Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA
+44 020 7729 9200
autograph.org.uk

Every exhibition that Autograph stages is unmissable. The organisation’s remit is to ‘champion the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight questions of race, representation, human rights and social justice’, and it offers opportunity after opportunity to see powerful and vitally important work. Far from jumping on any bandwagon, this mission has long been embedded within the organisation, its practices and via ambitious work. Autograph was established in 1988 to support black photographic practices, and began in a small office in the Bon Marché building in Brixton, when it was known as the Association of Black Photographers (ABP). It applied for charitable status and moved to a permanent home at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007, the first purpose-built space dedicated to the development and presentation of culturally diverse arts in England, decades before museums considered it necessary to start rethinking themselves.

Autograph punches significantly above its weight, and has long been an essential port of call for any photography lover living in or coming through the city, not to mention the impact on the capital’s culture at large. Largely owing to the skill and determination of visionary director Mark Sealy OBE – in post since 1991 – and talented and rigorous curator Bindi Vora, exhibitions at Autograph are born out of a professional methodology that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and grounded in both real-life research and experience. Yet it also moves past cultures of “them and us” to routinely bring to life transgressive and inclusive commissions, projects and publications.

As one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPO), Autograph saw a 30% uplift increase from £712,880 to £1,012,880 a year to support its work for the period of 2023–2026 (as per the last round of funding decisions announced in 2022). Stuart Hall once served as a chair on the board and Autograph’s unique collection contains works by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Zanele Muholi, James Barnor, Lina Iris Viktor, Yinka Shonibare, Ingrid Pollard, Joy Gregory, Colin Jones, Phoebe Boswell, Raphael Albert, Ajamu and others.

V&A Photography Centre

V&A Photography Centre
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL
+44 020 7942 2000
vam.ac.uk/info/photography-centre

Two transformative moments in the recent history of the V&A’s longstanding relationship with photography have been, firstly, the appointment of scholarly curator Duncan Forbes as the inaugural Director of Photography in 2020, who came from the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and then the launch of The Parasol Foundation in Women Photography Project in 2022, spearheaded by the prodigious Fiona Rogers. Dedicated to supporting women artists though acquisitions, research and education, augmented through a commissioning programme with support from the Parasol Foundation Trust, Rogers’ programme also features an increasingly important prize established to identify, support and champion women artists. It attracted over 1,400 submissions for the 2024 edition produced in partnership with Peckham24.

Prior to this, its vast photography holdings were bolstered when the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection was transferred in 2017, and the collection now runs to over 800,000 photographs that span the 1820s to the present day. Programmes have evolved amidst a backdrop of institutional accountability and inclusivity during the dramatic changes we’ve witnessed in recent years and has embraced dynamic contemporary practices as well as pivoted to account for the medium’s many histories. It’s now the largest space in the UK dedicated to a permanent photography collection, with a total of seven galleries, three rooms of which focus on contemporary international practices with Noémie Goudal and Hoda Afshar commanding ample space, the mighty impressive resource that is The Kusuma Gallery – Photography and the Book, and The Meta Media Gallery – Digital Gallery. Fledging curators: take note of The Curatorial Fellowship in Photography opportunity, supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, aimed to facilitate in-depth research into under-recognised aspects of the photography collection.

The Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographers’ Gallery 
16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW
+44 020 7087 9300
thephotographersgallery.org.uk

While the restrictive nature of its building – a converted, six story former textiles warehouse situated off Oxford Street in the heart of Soho – doesn’t make for an optimum exhibition experience, The Photographers’ Gallery remains an important and well-visited public gallery for photography in London. TPG spaces are tricky given the premises’ vertical orientation and warren-like galleries, but recent exhibitions such as the exemplary Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective, guest curated by Thyago Nogueira of São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles, did well to turn the entire gallery into something coherent.

Founded by the late Sue Davies OBE (1933-2020) in 1971 as the UK’s first public gallery dedicated to photography, TPG has a strong legacy and recently saw is funding maintained at £918,867 per year as one of Arts Council England’s NPOs during the 2022 announcement, the same year it launched its outdoor cultural space, Soho Photography Quarter – a rotating open air programme with much potential. It’s the world-class education and talks offer, programmed and curated by Janice McLaren and Luisa Ulyett, that are among its standout qualities. Workshops and short courses are just some of the events that broaden access and steer conversation. At street and basement level there is an innovative Digital Wall catering for photography’s increased automated and networked lives, a print sales gallery, well-stocked bookshop and much-loved café area providing a condensation point for a range of different publics. TPG’s annual exhibition, The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, an award of £30,000, has also entered a new phase since 2020 to include a broader range of voices as evidenced by the past five winners: Mohamed Bourouissa, Cao Fei, Deana Lawson, Samuel Fosso and Lebohang Kganye.

Former Photoworks director Shoair Mavlian took the helm in 2023, positive news given her curatorial background, NPO experience and canny thought leadership. Of course, it takes a couple of years for a new incumbent to put their stamp on a place like this but TPG is primed to reap the benefits of Mavlian’s ethos – contemporary, generous and diverse – and question what the space can be and who it can be for in order to thrive into the future.

Large Glass Gallery

Large Glass Gallery
392 Caledonian Road, London, N1 1DN
+44 020 7609 9345
largeglass.co.uk

In 2011, former director of Frith Street Gallery, Charlotte Schepke established a contemporary art gallery that leans heavily into photography: the innovative and elegant Large Glass Gallery based near Kings Cross on the edge of central London. Large Glass bills itself as an ‘alternative to the mainstream commercial gallery scene’, a description that is wholly warranted in light of its original and inquisitive approach to exhibition-making. From the inaugural exhibition, a precedent was set: channelling the energy of Marcel Duchamp by way of eclectic presentations of artworks, design pieces and found objects that take inspiration from the father of Conceptual Art, not only nodding to his famed work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), more commonly known as ‘The Large Glass’, but through embracing experimental juxtapositions.

Playful use of concepts and materials are still to be found and the current “rolling” exhibition is in case in point. Staged in three parts, After Mallarmé is curated by Michael Newman, who is Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. The heady thematic exhibition riffs off the works and legacy of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé to reflect on ideas of spaces, the page, the book, chance, mobility and contingency. Whereas, previously this year, Francesco Neri: Boncellino offered a more classic take via a selection of quiet and meditative, mostly black-and-white portraits of farmers and the farming community in the countryside around Modena in northern Italy, ‘a census of a village’s population’. Large Glass’ represented artists are: Hélène Binet, Guido Guidi, Hendl Helen Mirra, Francesco Neri and Mark Ruwedel.

Flowers Gallery

Flowers Gallery
21 Cork Street, London, W1S 3LZ
+44 020 7439 7766

82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP
+44 020 7920 777
flowersgallery.com

Heavyweight Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky may occupy much of the limelight at Flowers Gallery and their presence at art fairs such as Photo London and Paris Photo (Burtynsky was recently the subject of back-to-back exhibitions at the gallery’s Cork Street space which coincided with Saatchi Gallery’s major 2024 retrospective, BURTYNSKY: EXTRACTION / ABSTRACTION, the largest exhibition ever mounted in Burtynsky’s 40+ year career), but it boasts an impressive roster of photographers built up over years, first by Diana Poole then Chris Littlewood, who established the department which is now run by Lieve Beumer. Among them: Edmund Clark, Boomoon, Shen Wei, Robert Polidori, Julie Cockburn, Gaby Laurent, Tom Lovelace, Simon Roberts, Esther Teichmann, Lorenzo Vitturi, Michael Wolf, Mona Kuhn, Nadav Kander and Lisa Jahovic, all recognised for their engagement with important socio-cultural, political and environmental themes. Aficionados of the medium may hope for further in-depth and major photography exhibitions in due course from the esteemed gallery, but despite Flowers’ deep commitment to photography, it works across a range of media within contemporary art.

Flowers has presented more than 900 exhibitions across global locations, including from New York and Hong Kong outposts, and lists a total of 80 represented artists. Established in 1970 by Angela Flowers (1932–2023), Flowers has long held East End venues, initially in the heart of Hackney with Flowers East on Richmond Road, set up in 1988, before moving to Kingsland Road in Shoreditch in 2002, a 12,000 square foot venue spread over three floors of a 19th century warehouse, arguably London’s most elegant white cube space within which to view photography. ♦

 

 

 

 


Tim Clark is a writer and curator based in London. He is Editor in Chief at
1000 Words, Artistic Director at Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. 

Thomas King is Editorial Intern at 1000 Words and a student on BA (Hons) Culture, Criticism, Curation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

Images:

1-Autograph, London. © Kate Elliot

2-Hélène Amouzou: Voyages exhibition at Autograph. 22 September 2023-20 January 2024. Curated by Bindi Vora. © Kate Elliot

3-Wilfred Ukpong: Niger-Delta / Future-Cosmos exhibition at Autograph. 16 February-1 June 2024. Curated by Mark Sealy. © Kate Elliot

4-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre. Installation view of Untitled (Giant Phoenix), 2022, Noemié Goudal, Photography Now – Gallery 96 © Thomas Adank

5-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre – Photography and the Book – Gallery 98 © Thomas Adank

6-Gibson Thornley Architects, V&A Photography Centre – Photography Now – Gallery 97 © Thomas Adank

7-The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Luke Hayes

8>9-Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery. 6 October 2023-11 February 2024. © Kate Elliot

10-Ursula Schulz-Dornburg: Memoryscapes exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 13 May-1 July 2023. © Stephen White and Co

11-Francesco Neri: Boncellino exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 19 January–16 March 2024. © Stephen White and Co

12-Guido Guidi: Di sguincio exhibition at Large Glass Gallery. 3 February-11 March 2023. © Stephen White and Co

13-Flowers Gallery, Cork Street. © Antonio Parente

14-Edward Burtynsky, New Works exhibition at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street. 28 February-6 April 2024. © Antonio Parente


1000 Words favourites

• Renée Mussai on exhibitions as sites of dialogue, critique, and activism.

• Roxana Marcoci navigates curatorial practice in the digital age.

• Tanvi Mishra reviews Felipe Romero Beltrán’s Dialect.

• Discover London’s top five photography galleries.

• Tim Clark in conversation with Hayward Gallery’s Ralph Rugoff on Hiroshi Sugimoto.

• Academic rigour and essayistic freedom as told by Taous R. Dahmani.

Lisa Sorgini

Behind Glass

Essay by Catlin Langford

Currently on display at Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne/Naarm, Lisa Sorgini’s Behind Glass is a pandemic project comprising family portraits marked by art historical readings and an attempt to provoke discussion on the lack of awareness surrounding the relationships between children and mothers, as well as a wider misunderstanding concerning the messy realities of mothering and care, argues Catlin Langford.


A woman is seated, knees jutting forward. Her flesh compresses on the seat, a small, hollow dimple appearing on her left leg. Her face is obscured; hidden behind the naked baby she holds upwards, the child’s small foot skimming her upper thigh, and a hazy image of a cloudy blue sky and distant palm trees which falls across the woman’s face.

This layered imagery signals the driving concept informing Lisa Sorgini’s Behind Glass, a project comprising over 20 portraits of family groupings. Each work in the series was photographed through windows, or rather “behind glass”. The images reflected in the window glass become further characters in the portraits. It is multi-functional, serving as both a distinct aesthetic device, producing layered, painterly images, but also drawing attention to the unique circumstances under which the series was produced.

Behind Glass was conceived during the pandemic. Whilst social structures were significantly altered in this period of upheaval, mothers still found themselves undertaking most of the caring duties and were shouldered with even further responsibilities when other systems, like schooling, were not in place. Sorgini, at home with her two children and unable to work, responded to this personally and sought to document and reflect on the strange culture of parenting and care during the pandemic.

Created during the pandemic, Behind Glass was also held back by the pandemic. Its current showing at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne/Naarm is the first exhibition of the series in Australia. The images speak to both the collective and individual experience of the pandemic and undoubtedly resonate with the Melbourne population who were witness to a widely publicised ‘world’s longest lockdown’.[1] Sorgini is based in Bundjalung Country, in northern New South Wales. Like most of Australia, at some point this area was under stay-at-home orders, movement restricted to a five-kilometre radius. Complying with these rules, Sorgini sourced subjects within this perimeter via friends, neighbours or connections through contacts and social media. At their homes, she would direct her subjects via telephone or speaking through the glass, her six-month-old son sometimes strapped to her body as she photographed.

There is a naturalness to the photographs that one would not assume based on the circumstances of their creation and reveals Sorgini inherent understanding of her subjects. But there is also a theatricality, the works recalling art historical compositions. The scenes depicted are adorned in a golden light, a warmth permeating throughout the series. The light lifts the subjects, giving the everyday scenes a sense of grandeur. The presence of the windows serves as a framing device, recalling the presentation of artworks in galleries. It also evokes the Trompe-l’œil trickery of Northern Renaissance paintings, the frame painted into the image, questioning the audience’s conception of image versus reality. In Sorgini’s work, we are audience to two realities: the private interior world of the subject, shown through the window, and the exterior realities reflected in the glass. We capture glimpses, objects and scenes of interior domesticity, which contrast the outside expanse of forests, gardens or open blue skies. Whilst this outside world was off-limits to many during the pandemic, for mothers, leaving home can be difficult under the weight of responsibilities and the, at times, isolating and trapping experience of new motherhood. 

The present exhibition of Behind Glass at CCP draws attention to possible art historical readings. Photographs are grouped to encourage viewers to read and reflect on artistic depictions of the baby Jesus, the Three Graces and memento mori still lives. A secondary grouping depicts women nursing their infant children. Learned cultural understandings encourages a comparison to the Madonna and Child. But the mothers’ faces are obscured, hidden whilst in the midst of enacting caring duties.

This is a subtle signal to Sorgini’s wider concerns for the series and the themes embedded in her artistic practice. Sorigini is interested in the often-unacknowledged and unseen care given by mothers; a care that is widely accepted and expected, if unrecognised and unappreciated. In her exploration of care, Sorgini also considers the transferral and evolution of care and how it manifests in a variety of situations. In one work, a middle-aged woman looks out the window. Beside her, an elderly woman is seated, her unfocused gaze directed towards the viewer. The relationship between mother and daughter has altered, shifted and now swapped.

In curating the show, we discussed Sorgini’s recent travels to Italy and her experiences there of viewing works, including Renaissance paintings, in churches and galleries. We wanted to capture some sense of this experience, and the works have been purposefully shifted to above centre-line so the viewer must gaze upwards. This imbues the subjects with a greater sense of importance, as the role of care should be given, and further underlines their comparison to masterpiece artworks.

Such reverence is particularly notable given the unflinching honesty of the images. While expressing deep love and tenderness towards their family, the mothers appear tired in their role as central caregiver and provider. Interactions largely seem to be based on touch and need – grabbing, suckling, holding, supporting – an amalgamation of limbs and flesh. Flesh is a central motif, and Sorgini recognises and records the distinct changes which occur to the body during and following birth, and the caring duties which follow. The body wears the scars of such change, from stretch marks to ageing skin.

At a panel with fellow exhibiting artists Ying Ang and Odette England, Sorgini spoke of the misunderstandings surrounding her work and the tendency for the images to be viewed sexually, related to the depiction of flesh and touch. A discussion ensued on the lack of awareness surrounding the relationships between children and mothers, as well as a wider misunderstanding concerning the messy realities of mothering and care.

Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood curated by Susan Bright was first exhibited in 2013 at the Foundling Museum, in collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition sought to challenge stereotypes and sentimental views of motherhood, pursuing a depiction which was candid and revealing. In the decade since, honest revelations around motherhood remain relatively rare, and can ignite endless criticisms, their voices heightened in the age of social media. There is still much work to be done in centring, envisioning and reflecting the stories and experiences of motherhood, mothering and care, as is central to Sorgini’s practice. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and the Centre for Contemporary Photography © Lisa Sorgini

Installation views of Behind Glass at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Melbourne/Naarm until 9 April 2023. Photographs by Hannah Nikkelson. In a collaboration between the CCP and the V&A’s Women in Photography project, there will be a panel discussion with Ying Ang, Odette England and Lisa Sorgini, chaired by Susan Bright, on 5 April.


Catlin Langford is curator at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne/Naarm. She has previously held positions at the V&A, Royal College of Art and Royal Collection Trust. She will be undertaking a fellowship at Cité internationale des arts, Paris in spring 2023 to continue her research on autochromes. 

Images:

1-Hannah and Ochre in the dining room, Clunes © Lisa Sorgini

2-Leah and Ethan in the bedroom #2, Pottsville © Lisa Sorgini

3-Jules and Alby in the dining room, St Helena © Lisa Sorgini

4-Amelia and Una in the dining room © Lisa Sorgini

5-Sarah and Ellaine in the living room, South Golden Beach © Lisa Sorgini

6-Beck with Matilda and Indigo at the front door #2, Mullumbimby © Lisa Sorgini

7-Hannah and Ochre in the dining room, Clunes © Lisa Sorgini

8-Abigail and Marigold in the kitchen #2, Federal © Lisa Sorgini

9-Installation ‘Behind Glass’ at Centre for Contemporary Photography © CCP/Hannah Nikkelson

10-Installation ‘Behind Glass’ at Centre for Contemporary Photography © CCP/Hannah Nikkelson       

References:

[1] Calla Wahlquist, “How Melbourne’s ‘short, sharp’ Covid lockdowns became the longest in the world”, The Guardian, 2 October 2021.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

(Second edition)

£13.99

Click here to order the new and expanded edition of Curator Conversations.

Curator Conversations is a collection of interviews with leading curators working within contemporary photography today. It offers precious insights into key modes of thinking behind the curatorial practices that have resulted in influential and landmark exhibitions at galleries and museums across the globe, including MoMA, Tate Modern, Pompidou Centre, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Finnish Museum of Photography, Zeitz MOCAA – Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Instituto Moreira Salles and SCôP: Shanghai Center of Photography, among others.

Their contributions provide wide-ranging discussions and a strong sense of critical self-reflexivity to explore the various ways curating mediates our experience and understanding of the photographic image. Among the fundamental questions engaged in the book are the medium specificity of photography; exhibitions as ‘artwork’; critical contexts for imagery; the curator’s role; collaboration and community; notions of ethics, responsibility and care; relationships between artists and curators, museums and audiences; as well as propositions for ‘decolonisation’ through forms of curatorial activism. Ultimately, this volume sheds light on the aesthetic, political and personal concerns of creative individuals involved in exhibition-making, generating new pathways for thinking about the display and dissemination of photography.

Featuring Sarah Allen, Mariama Attah, Yves Chatap, Clément Chéroux, Charlotte Cotton, Marta Dahó, Christine Eyene, Louise Fedotov-Clements, Yining He, Tom Lovelace, Roxana Marcoci, Shoair Mavlian, Renée Mussai, Thyago Nogueira, Azu Nwagbogu, Danaé Panchaud, Alona Pardo, Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger, Holly Roussell, Drew Sawyer, Kathrin Schönegg, Urs Stahel, Lisa Sutcliffe, Nadine Wietlisbach, Duncan Wooldridge.

Editor Tim Clark
Copy Editor Alessandro Merola
Design & Art Direction Sarah Boris
Production Assistant Louis Stopforth

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief of 1000 Words and Artistic Director for Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, together with Walter Guadagnini and Luce Lebart. He also teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University.

Publication date November 2023 (second edition)
Format Softcover
Dimensions 198 mm x 129 mm
Pages 160
Publisher 1000 Words (1000 Words Photography Ltd)

Distribution
Public Knowledge Books
diane@publicknowledgebooks.com
www.publicknowledgebooks.com

Press:

Source Photographic Review
El País
Photomonitor
The British Journal of Photography

Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020

False signals and white regimes: an award in need of decolonisation

Editorial | Tim Clark

Tim Clark on Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize’s reproduction of structural inequality, Mohamed Bourouissa’s ambivalent ‘victory’ and the implications for curatorial responsibility


Algerian-born artist Mohamed Bourouissa has been announced as the winner of the £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020, an award founded in 1996 by The Photographers’ Gallery, London and now in its twenty-fourth year.* Bourouissa was among a shortlist of four artists that included Clare Strand, Anton Kusters and Mark Neville, having been nominated for his mighty impressive exhibition Free Trade first staged within Monoprix at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019.

Free Trade was a survey showcasing fifteen years of Bourouissa’s creative output. His work examines the value and visibility of marginalised and economically bereft members of society, as well as productions of knowledge, exchange and structures of power. Video, painting, sculpture, installation and, of course, photography are routinely put to powerful use. So too is an impressive range of imagery that encompasses staged scenes, surveillance footage and even stolen smartphones. Ideas come into focus and vibrate against one another, laying bare some of the terrible realities and injustices of late capitalism, all the while questioning the means of an image and politics of representing the ‘other’. It felt sharp, sobering, confounding, mysterious, critical and intelligible on its own political terms. In the context of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize display here in an extended run at The Photographers’ Gallery, Free Trade has been very capably distilled into a satisfying-enough iteration of the work, despite the typical space restrictions and challenges of staging this annual group show.

Nevertheless Bourouissa’s ‘victory’ betrays an alarming fact: he is just one of four artists of colour to win this highly-coveted prize during its twenty-four year history, joining Shirana Shabazi (2002), Walid Raad (2007) and Luke Willis Thompson (2018) who have come before him.** In tandem with this disturbing revelation we must also consider another uncomfortable truth: no black artist has ever won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize as it approaches its first quarter of a century in existence.  

What this amounts to is curatorial malpractice on the one hand, and capitalist oppression on the other – a form of reproducing and perpetuating racial inequality, both in material and ideological terms. A quick, top-level calculation of the monies awarded to just the winners alone (these figures exclude the smaller sums given to runners up) shows that a total of £485,000 has been awarded to white artists (82%), in comparison to £105,000 awarded to artists of colour (18%)  – a wildly unequal distribution. Not only this, but it subsequently impacts on the discrepancies in levels of press coverage received, as well as interest from galleries, museums and collectors with implications for their markets and price points of artworks. Clearly no honest observer can say that such devaluation, in every sense of the word, isn’t a problem. And it’s a white problem that needs to be urgently addressed going forward.

It may also come as no surprise then, but is still nonetheless shocking, that the five members of the jury for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 – including a non-voting chair – are all white.*** However highly-respected and accomplished they may be as artists, editors and curators, this too is shameful and inexcusable. Regardless of this year’s outcome.

Whitewashing on the part of the establishment is obviously harmful to our profession, and therefore to society and culture at large. In effect it’s sending out the message to young artists and curators of colour that ‘there are no opportunities for you and your chance of attaining this level of recognition are slim – there is no space for you, and your work is not valid within the narrow parameters of this prize’. It makes it seem like a rigged system, blocking the development of black and brown excellence, while depriving us all of richness of the contemporary photographic landscape we deserve. Indeed that’s precisely how the whiteness project manifests itself over and over again. For this is a continuum, not an isolated incident. We know that as a ruling principle whiteness is most effective when it is unnamed and unseen, an idea that is consolidated by upholding status privilege while neglecting other non-hegemonic modes of being in the world, thereby reasserting itself and the normalisation of its proponents’ limited worldview. But it’s detected here in the case of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, an award in need of decolonisation despite last night’s seemingly positive result. Only then can we begin to generate the right conditions for a level playing field.

We might think of one of Stedelijk Museum’s newly appointed Curator-at-Large, Yvette Mutumba’s conception of the task of decolonisation and what it entails. In her recent interview on frieze.com she commented: “It means understanding that decolonization is not a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’, but concerns all of us. It means acknowledging that this is not a current moment or trend. It means recognizing that BIPoC/BAME/POC are not necessarily particularly ‘political’: we simply do not have the choice to not be political. It means admitting that having grown up in a racist structure is no excuse.”

Of course we all need to check ourselves, and what we’re doing in order to be mindful of our own privilege and positionality. It has obviously occurred to me that as a cis white man mine is a voice that certainly doesn’t need liberation but we can’t just sit and wait for change to come. I am also aware many people who look and sound like me don’t speak at all – let alone take action – lest they might ‘fail’. A perennial double bind. This is something the photographer and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa reminded his audience during an ‘in conversation’ with Sunil Shah early on in lockdown, as part of Atelier NŌUA’s Once Upon a Time talks series, in which he summoned Samuel Beckett’s sage words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s worth noting that Wolukau-Wanambwa also shared his more general observation relating to the false consciousness that somehow, by default, those working in the arts, given that they are creative with a proclivity to ‘openness’, are not thought of – or think of themselves – as adopting racist and discriminatory practices.

At a minimum it would certainly give some meaning to the countless statements of solidarity that accompanied black squares during Instagram’s #BlackOutTuesday, not to mention the performative allyship that ensued, manifesting in platitudes such as “we must fight systemic racism” or “don’t stay silent” only to never hear from such people again on the matter or see any changes in their respective programmes and activities. Now is the time for white people who are genuinely taking on anti-racism work to attend to what we say and do. The comments from Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017) author Reni Eddo-Lodge in an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 continue to orbit my imagination: “those annoying white liberals, who luxuriate in passivity as it’s not directly affecting them. They are like, ‘I support this and want everyone to do well but I’m not going to do anything.’” In short, it is a matter of deciding to use white privilege to end white privilege.

Of course, there exists no absolution. All white people run the risk of “the danger of good intentions” as Barbara Applebaum has articulated it in Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility and Social Justice Pedagogy (2010). We must though “foster an attitude of vigilance”, in the words of bell hooks. Turner Prize-winning artist Tai Shani reminds us of this in Why Art Workers Must Demand the Impossible on artreview.com: “The bewildering ethical paradoxes of the artworld have become as much part of the artworld as art itself. These paradoxes have been sustained by a façade of equilibrium, of a liberal centrist political position that has been hardwired into the operational models of galleries, museums, institutions, art schools, and art organisations.”

For my part, it would be particularly remiss not to name these issues in light that I led the first Photography and Curation ten-week course at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2018-19 on the invitation of and in collaboration with London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. This public course examined the various ways curating can shape our encounter with and the understanding of the photographic image. Participants were exposed to various key philosophical insights – from defining what an exhibition or curator is to future practices in the era of the networked image – as well as practical insights relating to the constantly evolving display, organisation and public dissemination of photographs. At its core lay the fundamental question of what constitutes curatorial responsibility?, drawing on Maura Reilly’s Curatorial Activism: Towards An Ethics of Curating (2018) as the key reading, in which Reilly encourages us to not only listen to others but ourselves: “What are my biases? Am I excluding large constituencies of people in my selections?; Have I favoured male artists over female, white over black – if so, why?”

I’m therefore duty bound, since evidently black and brown colleagues have bore this burden for too long, which by all accounts is exhausting and dispiriting. Halting this long-standing pattern of suppression should be all of our project. I’m aligned with Holland Cotter’s piece Museums Are Finally Taking A Stand. But Can They Find Their Footing? written on nytimes.com this June: “…which raises the question of why is it left to a black-identified institution to address the matter? Because race consciousness is widely assumed to be somehow a black issue, not a white one? Even people who once believed this can see, just from watching police violence and protests on recent news, that they’re wrong.”

The collective task then, is one that partly extends beyond the reach of and even precedes The Photographers’ Gallery and Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation’s work. To a certain extent it falls to the academy of 150 nominators of which I am part – who are proffering their two selections to The Photographers’ Gallery on an annual basis every September in order to create the long-list – to properly interrogate ourselves and consider any ‘unintentional’ biases before submitting. It’s a matter of individual responsibility and institutional accountability – a single voice that must advocate for and pursue change. It therefore also begs the ‘controversial’ question: should The Photographers’ Gallery be imposing a quota to ensure equality across the genders, sexes and races? Whatever it may be, some mechanisms certainly need to be introduced in order to fight the prize’s in-built and long-upheld discrimination given hierarchies and biases are repeating very close to home. So too is a sector-wide paradigm shift required, right through from the reading lists university lecturers set their students to who specifically galleries support and represent; from the type of media coverage allotted in the art press to museums boards, directors and curators diversifying their organisation from within, all with the view to resisting, confronting and challenging these deeply-entrenched problems within our industry.

If the tragic lynching of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of the police – Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery in the US alone – has taught us anything, it is the following: “You can feel that this is different. These [Black Lives Matter] protests are not driven by empathy but by implication – ‘I am complicit and responsible therefore I must act’; this is a much more honest relationship to white supremacy and anti-black violence,” as affirmed in an ‘in conversation’ hosted by Lisson Gallery in June with the artist John Akomfrah that was led by Ekow Eshun, together with academics Tina Campt and Sadiya Hartmam.

But it is also going to take some serious soul-searching, vulnerability and ontological insecurity. As Daniel C. Blight has written in his book The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (2019), this “means white people must work to accept that they are sutured to whiteness and that removing those stitches is a lifelong pursuit rather than a single, narcissistic point of arrival.” Blight also cites a particularly pertinent extract from George Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America (2017), in which the firebrand philosopher notes that this requires “a continuous effort on the part of whites to forge new ways of seeing, knowing and being.”

In wake of this I am compelled to ask: how, in good conscience, is it possible for an Arts Council England-funded organisation of this size and stature, in a city like London which is known for its vast range of cultures, nationalities and ethnicities – those that make up our diverse communities and multiple publics – to achieve such a historically woeful lack of representation in the case of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize? How can this feasibly be considered productive or desirable when it comes to composing a jury for arguably the most prestigious prize within our medium? Is there genuinely that little interest to engage some of the perspectives of non-white artists, writers, publishers, curators, and so on? Did the jury members not stop to question that being part of an all white jury is problematic?****

And, in any event, what sort of meaningful, or realistic, statement do the implicated institutions really expect to make on the state of photography, given that their high-profile prize is predicated on exclusion and erasure, having enabled artists of colour to be largely subjugated and therefore not granted their share of resources and funds? How can it possibly be a viewed as a legitimate history of contemporary photography, or, at the very least, a snapshot of those artists who have made significant impact on the medium during the past three decades? Why is there only, at most, one artist of colour on any given shortlist during the prize’s history? Is that all that is allowable? Is a bare minimum ever really enough? It reeks of tokenism.

The bigger question, of course, is whether The Photographers’ Gallery, under its current direction, is properly equipped to deal with the brave new world into which we have been thrust. We need cultural leaders within contemporary photography and visual culture to step up and lead the way. Those individuals that can offer long-term and enduring strategies of resistance, create solutions that will ensure equal opportunity, exposure and remuneration; and for them to harness art’s potential for change, championing work, ideas and concepts that infuse and enrich the world and the world of images. To tackle difficult issues head on – or at least back their skilled curators to do it – all the while understanding and insisting on the difference between diversity and anti-racism to avoid any institutional hypocrisy and opportunism. “In order to move into a white self-critical space beyond anti-racism,” Blight explains in his book, “whiteness must do more than make liberal gestures in the form of pro-diversity work. We must transform our comfortable denial and unwitting ignorance into something that is, in essence, new.”

Part of that new world could be a publicly funded gallery and a prize not centred on whiteness, one that takes those vitally important, other ways of being, seeing and thinking into a traditionally white institution in order to dismantle processes of marginalisation and instead collectively build an abundant space for difference to thrive. Ultimately, we need new regimes of truth that are more compatible with the present moment, similar to what Novara Media’s Co-Founder Aaron Bastani cites in Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2019) as “a strategy for our times while carving out new figureheads for utopia, outlining the world as it could be and where to begin.”

With an eye to the not-too-distant future, I hope this deeply unjust cycle can be disrupted and that the prize makes amends in the forthcoming years. Let Mohamed Bourouissa’s fantastic, albeit somewhat ambivalent, ‘win’ be the start of something new. But whether or not there is an actual appetite for meaningful, positive change remains to be seen. Clearly there is much woke work to be done, curatorial correctives to take place, new support systems to be built, destructive enterprises to be divested from, uneasy conversations to be had, discomfort to sit with, spaces to give up, injustices to be called out (and acted upon), interventions to be made. And it is going to hurt.♦


Tim Clark is the Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University
. He lives and works in London.

Images:

1-Mohamed Bourouissa, NOUS SOMMES HALLES, 2002-2003. In collaboration with Anoushkashoot. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

2-Mohamed Bourouissa, Installation view. Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Kate Elliott and The Photographers’ Gallery

3-Mohamed Bourouissa, NOUS SOMMES HALLES, 2002-2003. In collaboration with Anoushkashoot. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

4-Mohamed Bourouissa, Installation view. Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 The Photographers’ Gallery, London. © Kate Elliott and The Photographers’ Gallery

5-Mohamed Bourouissa, BLIDA 2, 2008. © Mohamed Bourouissa, Kamel Mennour, Paris & London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

*
Support

The Photography Prize has been realised with the support of Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation (ongoing), Deutsche Börse Group (2005-2015) and Citigroup (1996-2004).

**
Previous winners

1997 Richard Billingham £10,000
1998 Andreas Gursky £10,000
1999 Rineke Dijkstra £10,000
2000 Anna Gaskell £10,000
2001 Boris Mikhailov £15,000
2002 Shirana Shahbazi £15,000
2003 Juergen Teller £20,000
2004 Joel Sternfeld £20,000
2005 Luc Delahaye £30,000
2006 Robert Adams £30,000
2007 Walid Raed £30,000
2008 Esko Männikkö £30,000
2009 Paul Graham £30,000
2010 Sophie Ristelheuber £30,000
2011 Jim Goldberg £30,000
2012 John Stezaker £30,000
2013 Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin £30,000
2014 Richard Mosse £30,000
2015 Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse £30,000
2016 Trevor Paglen £30,000
2017 Dana Lixenberg £30,000
2018 Luke Willis Thompson £30,000
2019 Susan Meiselas £30,000
2020 Mohamed Bourissa £30,000

***
The 2020 Jury

The members of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 were Martin Barnes, Senior Curator, Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom; Melanie Manchot, artist and photographer, based in London, United Kingdom; Joachim Naudts, Curator and Editor at FOMU Foto Museum in Antwerp, Belgium; Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt a. M., Germany; and Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery as the non-voting chair.

****

I am deeply ashamed to have taken part in my last all-white panel for an award as recently as February 2020. I have since turned down two other similar invitations and will ensure this never happens again.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#8 Charlotte Cotton

Charlotte Cotton is a curator, writer and creative consultant who has explored photographic culture for over twenty years. She has held positions including Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Head of Programming at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, and Curator and Head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at LACMA | Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her books include Public, Private, Secret: On Photography and the Configuration of Self (Aperture/International Center of Photography, 2018); Photography is Magic (Aperture, 2015); This Place (MACK, 2014); Words Without Pictures (Aperture, 2010) and The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2004), which has been published in ten languages and is a key text in charting the rise of photography as an undisputed art form in the 21st century. The fourth edition will be published in September 2020. She is also the co-founder of eitherand.org.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

For me, it’s the scope of possibilities within the exhibition form that is enticing. I return to exhibition-making when a physical orchestration – a spatially-led staging – is the form that an idea needs to take. I think about where in the body an experience is held – in the gut, the throat, fingertips, or immediately laid out for the mind’s eye. I think about the shift in the tonality of conversations from bedrooms, kitchens, and formal dining rooms and how that translates into exhibition design – the meaning of thresholds, acoustics, vantage points, enclosures, and twists and turns that you build into an exhibition’s narrative, embedded into the architecture of the space. I absolutely love the process of making exhibitions – from the openness of an idea in gestation, the critique and testing of a concept, through to the coming together of the exhibition form. My favourite part is the exhibition installation when all eyes are on the job and everyone is aiming for the same idea of excellence, and responding to the planned and unexpected of giving form.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

I don’t think that the vocation of being a curator is fundamentally changed by our present day image environment. Curating remains an act of creating (experiences and exchanges) for other people – of “taking care”. I prefer the verb version of “curate” (and also “photograph”) to their noun definitions – I like both to be acknowledged as metabolic action, and that levelling of the hierarchies of who has claim to what can be done in the name of photography – or its curation – is well overdue and called forth in this age of data excess, fake news, and hyper-surveillance. I don’t confuse curating with image editing or connoisseurship, or with the roles of impresarios, A&R’s, taste-makers, or academics. On a bad day, when I suspect that I’m in a situation where “curator” means something I am not comfortable with, because it’s too elite or co-opted in the given context, I’ll shift to being an interlocutor – “someone who is involved in a conversation”.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

Rigorous yet open curiosity.

What was your route into curating?

The earliest memories I have from childhood are pretty formative of my chosen path. Through the 1970s, my parents were antique furniture restorers, working with pre-factory production “vernacular” furniture (it was “country” furniture back in the day), from across the British Isles. They supplied antiques dealers, interior designers, and collectors, mainly in London and across the West Coast of America. Container loads of furniture would arrive for restoration and it was a total thrill for me and my sister to touch, open, and choose our favourite pieces, play, and invent stories about where the furniture came from. To watch the furniture transformed with care, and my parents’ subsequent research and writing of the first history of British regional, working class furniture-making – their articulate empathy for where creativity lies – was undoubtedly my curatorial education. We also met amazing, glamorous, charismatic people who would come to do business. Our 1979 family road trip along the Pacific Highway and my first trip to Portobello Road have pretty much defined where and how I like to live and who I am close to. This visceral training is something that I am thinking about during COVID-19 lockdown. You might be able to tell that I’ve returned to the town where I was born! I’m walking in the woods and lanes with my 17-month-old nephew and watching him experience the feel of moss, look up into the tree canopies with amazement, give hugs to beautiful trees, and his sheer joy at aesthetic experience, and it is the best part of my day. When I was a teenager, photography became my passion because of the aesthetic experience it gives me, its embedded-ness in lived experience, and the kindnesses, fellowship and joy of its interlocutors. Which leads me on to your next question.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

There are many exhibition experiences that I can recall a visual memory of where I was standing, and what I felt. But one of my first memorable experiences was just after I graduated from my BA (Hons) Art History and I went to an exhibition spearheaded by David Elliott at Modern Art Oxford called Photography in Russia: 1840-1940. The constellation of photographs from a century of photographic practice was dense (in a good way), and overwhelming – perhaps some of the characteristics that can still impress me in classic exhibition making. In retrospect, I think I was responding to the way that the exhibition made me move in and out – step back and assess, peer in and engage. There was an autochrome self-portrait by the playwright and novelist Leonid Andreyev from about 1910. I’d never seen an autochrome before, and there was this beautiful man, depicted unexpectedly in colour. I encountered him. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I adore exhibitions that just glide you into paying attention – especially those where you get to think that it is constructed just for you.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

I’ve never shaken off (nor wanted to) the abbreviated top line of my job descriptions for the twelve years that I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum – “to increase the physical and intellectual access to photography”. That’s still a divining rod for when I commit to a curatorial project; whether I have faith that the situation and the team perceive that as the ultimate end goal. I feel great responsibility to the artists who participate in the curatorial projects I create and that they feel well-represented and understood, and I go deeply into channelling and animating historical archives and oeuvres in ways that resonate with contemporary viewership. I actively enjoy the responsibility of understanding, nurturing, publicly acknowledging the teams in which I work. On all levels, I recognise that my curatorial life has been supported, encouraged and allowed to roam by others, and being collegiate in a true sense is one of the last vestiges of why I try to not entirely give up on now-historic frameworks for our labour. Like everyone, I am responsible for acknowledging my inner biases and shortcomings and that’s only possible if you invite in wise counsel and fellowship that calls you out and helps you restructure your thinking. And, finally, (this is a long list of responsibilities, you may be able to tell that I started my career as a museum curator in an age when that meant you were a public servant) you have a responsibility to yourself – I respect my craft, my purpose, my processes, the merits of urgent curiosity, shifting my vantage point, and having something to say.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

That it’s a solitary form of creativity that merits recognition through single authorship. Curating is relational, situational, and collaborative. That’s the joy of it for me.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Try it! Hold your vision and your ideal viewer in close communion, and you will find that right form. And let me know if I can help.♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Charlotte Cotton © Christian MacDonald

2-Installation view of Public, Private, Secret, International Center of Photography, New York, 2016-17.

3-Installation view of Public, Private, Secret, International Center of Photography, New York, 2016-17.