The Photographer’s Gallery – a polemic

I popped in to the revamped Photographer’s Gallery today. It was boring. There was the ever up-it’s-own-arse Deutsche Bourse
on the 5th floor. There was something or other on the fourth floor – can’t remember. There was a camera obscura on the third (absolutely dire compared to the one in Bristol). The best bit was on two where they had a whole lot (200 apparently) of Japanese Photobooks which you could look through but not before donning prissy white gloves.

And I think it is the image of the ‘white gloves’ which characterises the whole project of the Photographer’s Gallery specifically and photography in the UK as a whole. We can’t engage with photography for its own sake. We have to give contemporary work the full serious context before we can digest it.

We can’t look at contemporary photography before we’ve donned the metaphorical White Gloves. We ‘need’ something to separate our messy, uneducated minds so they don’t infect the work with an honest reaction.

In truth, 90% of photographic work shown today in galleries, books and museums is tedious, self referential and challenging only in the sense that it ‘challenges’ us to keep our eyes open and not nod off or walk out in high dudgeon.

Where is the élan and joie de vivre of the French national collections, galleries and festivals, the New York openness to all things photographic, the San Franciscan belief that photography is a fundamental part of that city’s life? You won’t find any of these qualities in London because, in London, we don’t give a shit about photography but are addicted to its ‘coolness’. It looks pretty hip on the wall and photographers are lifestyle merchants par excellence.

Great photographs are taken for love; love of the medium, love of the subject, love of the look, love of the turn of the page. They are also taken for fear, repulsion and many other very human and visceral emotions. But visit a few London galleries and you’d be forgiven for believing that the primary motivation to click the shutter was ‘the head’. Because you can’t write a bollocks foreword to a catalogue when a picture is taken for the heart but give ‘the head’ it’s head and you can write as much boring drivel and give the pictures the most trite titles you can come up with til you go blue in the face.

I say let the heart rule the head and give us back our galleries and curators and let photography do what it does best and provide a mechanical method of looking into the human heart and not a pictorial device for self justification.

So let’s remove the white gloves and allow the images we love to touch us. We can still fall achingly, head over heels in love with the beauty and the eternal truths told to us by that clever box of tricks that almost everyone of us owns.

Photography and the way it is presented doesn’t have to be bland so let’s not take these boring spaces for granted. If you walk into an exhibition and it bores you, talk about it, blog it, tweet it, sing it from the roof tops, “NO MORE WHITE GLOVES PLEASE. I AM AN INTELLIGENT AND SENTIENT HUMAN BEING!”

I should finish by saying that I am privileged to know many people who care genuinely for photography. If any part of this polemic annoys you or you feel I’ve got it wrong somehow, please, let me know. I would love to hear your views.

London 1/9/12

7 thoughts on “The Photographer’s Gallery – a polemic”

  1. Here here my friend — bloody rubbish wearing white gloves. They get dirty after 5 minutes and then make a mess of whatever you touch. With books, wearing gloves almost guarantees tearing a page. A hands-on experience should be EXACTLY THAT… don’t get me started. How was Greece etc? Hope you recharged the batteries and are brimming with zeal and creative juices flowing etc. Love to all, JW

    1. Thanks, Johann. … And there will be an exhibition (tbc) starting February in the fair city of SFO of my work which will be the embodiment of all I espouse here.

      And my most delicate sentiments to you and the lovely Chris.

  2. I don’t really visit galleries much, for largely the reasons you give. So I can’t give an up-to-date view on them. I do, however, absolutely subscribe to your view of what photography is all about. I just photograph what I see that moves me in some way.

  3. Go on son! Interesting words. I went to the gallery the other day. It took me 10 minutes to walk round the whole thing (and 9 minutes of that were enjoying Rinko Kawauchi’s lovely work). I am a fan of Pieter Hugo but I was 6 years ago. I think Burtynsky is great but I have seen it so many times. Its about time someone changed the record. I’m all for celebrating great work and the work of recognised masters but lets have some more homegrown shows. Like a Schneideman/CM group show for example?

    1. Will, so right. I’m a fan of Rinko’s too but look how they showed her work. And also, in truth, it hasn’t moved on a great deal either. Pieter Hugo’s work is good, too (who can forget those images of men posing with hyena’s) but there were hardly any pictures on show – certainly not enough to prove the DB’s point.

      And yes photomontages are amusing and surprising at first glance but to say anymore of them is to say too much. I did like the way these were displayed though.

      It seems as if we are being challenged to ‘get’ something about the work. It is the work that needs to justify itself and the curators can help this by hanging the shows with honesty and an awareness of the varying standpoints of visitors to their exhibitions. More often they seem to be designing shows for each other – which I believe is the quickest route to disappearing up their own arses.

      And yes would love to team up for a show. A

  4. Alex, I couldn’t agree more.
    The London photographic representation is seriously stuffy, and certainly not inclusive!

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