Towards a new paradigm: Brett Rogers and The Photographers' Gallery, London

The Photographer's Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW, U.K., November 2014. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

The Photographer's Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW, U.K., November 2014. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

Brett Rogers has led The Photographers’ Gallery (TPG) as Director since November 2005. As an Australian who grew up in Sydney, Rogers was a student of the University of Sydney’s Power Institute in its early years, before landing the inaugural traineeship at the newly formed Australian Gallery Directors’ Council which saw her become Exhibitions Manager (1976–1979), organising touring exhibitions between major museums and regional galleries throughout Australia, but also developing projects and relationships between Australian and international institutions such as the Guggenheim and The British Council. In 1980 Rogers left Sydney to undertake a Master of Arts at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art, later joining The British Council’s Visual Arts Department in London. There, while holding the joint roles of Deputy Director and Head of Exhibitions, she promoted the work of British photographers abroad and organised many other exhibitions including Anish Kapoor’s presentation in the British Pavilion for the 44th Venice Biennale in 1990. In June 2014 Rogers was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to arts and media in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. This conversation between Rogers and Sydney-based curator and writer Pedro de Almeida took place at TPG in late November 2014.

Pedro de Almeida (PdA): Just last week The Guardian’s art journalist and critic Jonathan Jones declared, ‘a photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting’ [1]. To what extent do you still encounter these kind of prejudices, not only within the London art world, but in the wider cultural sphere?  

Brett Rogers OBE (BR): I find that this kind of thing does happen when contemporary visual art critics talk about photography because they don’t know enough of the discourse around it; they don’t visit our gallery very often, to be honest. Now fortunately we have specific photography critics, but even some of those struggle. For example, when the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is announced with anyone such as John Stezaker, whom some critics don’t see as a photographer, or Christopher Williams, they tell me: ‘Brett, this is supposed to be a photography prize, not a conceptual art prize.’ So I don’t think it’s just Jonathan Jones. It must be said, however, that I really do think we have a great range of photography writers in this country, just to mention the older generation being Ian Jeffrey and Gerry Badger, and I would say David Campany, Mark Durden and Gordon MacDonald are all great writers, but they work within their own sector, writing books or for magazines such as Photoworks, and so unfortunately they’re not the ones whose voices are heard in the broadsheets.

Something I’d like to point out, however, in reference to that Jonathan Jones article, is that just last month we closed Lorenzo Vitturi’s show Dalston Anatomy, and there could be nothing more sculptural, nothing less that might define Jones’s categorisation of how photography takes form and is displayed. The series only ever existed as a book before it became an exhibition here. Lorenzo’s been living in London for eight years, coming from Venice and the famous Fabrica in Treviso. This work is in response to a street market in Ridley Road that has predominantly West African and Middle Eastern vendors and communities. He was worried about gentrification in East London because people like him were moving into the area and changing it, and wanted to capture it before it disappeared. Lorenzo re-photographed his own images and assemblages, and pasted posters of his work in the market and on his website. Then he found that some of the people came along and took the posters off and put them in their hairdressing salons. When we asked him to do a show of that work he turned the work into three-dimensional images in reconstructed elements of the market here. Lorenzo originally thought that he’d commission a sociologist to write something, but then he got a rap poet Sam Berkson to respond to the experience of walking in the market and to stage a performance here [2].

PdA: Looking back to the beginning of your career in Australia in the early 1970s, what have been the common intellectual threads that have driven your work and vision for cultural organisations, artists and audiences?

BR: I was very lucky to start my career at a time when very little had been researched about photography. It was so exciting to meet young curators and researchers who were prepared to do that work. When I was working at the Australian Gallery Directors’ Council I worked with some curators and directors from the University of Melbourne, including Kiffy Rubbo [3]. She and her colleagues were about to do some research into Australian women photographers and this was the first time I had even realised that women photographers had made a powerful contribution, and so we did an exhibition on this subject. My frustration all my life has been that I was never allowed within any course I did in Australia, or here when I came to the Courtauld, to study photography! It wasn’t accepted in 1980. I was told by the Courtauld: ‘No, you can’t do anything on 1930s photography – why would you want to do that?’ So I ended up doing something on surrealist exhibitions and how they were created, through photography obviously, using the images as the main research tool. I grew up at a time when there wasn’t enough understanding, and much less appreciation, of the contributions of both historical and contemporary photographers to visual culture generally, so I was lucky to see it all emerge in front of me and be part of it when photography was beginning to be taken seriously in Australia, when there existed just a few lone voices such as Gael Newton, Jennie Boddington and Alan Davies and a few other seminal people.

PdA: How did you manage to realise TPG’s £9.2 million capital development, completed in May 2012, in a climate of ‘austerity’, and what is the principal mission of the gallery’s future in relation to its stakeholders?

BR: I’m a very pragmatic person and that’s what TPG’s Trustees liked about me when they appointed me. Australians are very much like that, I think. For instance, my colleague Michael Lynch, whom I went to university with, ran the Southbank Centre and he managed to get that job done against all the odds. At TPG they had been trying for ten years to realise a new capital development project and it had failed. So, ask an Australian! When I came on board the Arts Council had given TPG £3 million and the organisation was running out of time to spend that money. I was very pragmatic because, to be honest, when I came in – it wasn’t in the austerity time as I came on board in 2006 – I very quickly had to develop a project which was extremely ambitious to the extent that we were going to knock this building down and start again. That was going to cost £18 million. We talked to everybody when we started the fundraising for that. Then in 2008 the crash hit and at that stage I had just sold the other building, thank goodness. I was terribly bold and decided to change direction. I thought, We can’t do £18 million now, we just can’t, it’s impossible. So I had to go back to my wonderful architects O'Donnell + Tuomey and say: ‘I’m very sorry to disappoint you, we can’t do the new building anymore. What can you do with the existing site?’ So of the revised £9 million target, £3 million came from the sale of the old building, and I was very fortunate that I only had £6 million to raise. Although they were terribly disappointed, I think the architects produced just as good a building in the conversion. Something I learnt, also from watching a couple of other projects go wrong, is that sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise, though at the time it might not feel like it.

PdA: You’ve previously said that you’re keenly aware that TPG has been too focused on Europe and North America to the detriment of showcasing contemporary and historical work from other geographical regions. What might be underway or planned to broaden TPG’s scope in this regard?

BR: I would like to put this in context by stating that I think we’re all playing catch up here because even Tate has realised that it hasn’t been doing enough to embrace all those different areas. So we at TPG are following a wider trend in the United Kingdom that is realising that we haven’t been doing enough in gaining knowledge and cultural exchange. At TPG we are now thinking of organising a new commission for an Asian photographer to produce a new body of work that will be shown in Singapore and then in London, and that will be every second year. Because I feel also that my curators are very European in outlook, I’m increasingly making them focus on areas beyond Europe as a priority. So we’re trying to inform ourselves much better. I just had a long trip to China and Latin America, and I’ve been traveling a little recently to the Middle East, which I find is producing some very interesting work, as well as Korea, and to a lesser extent China. We are also looking at the potential of developing a triennale that will have a different geographic focus every time round. The first one will be in 2017-2018.

PdA: What have been some of the relationships and conversations between Australia and TPG in the past and in recent years?

BR: The way that TPG and the Australian Centre for Photography have always positioned their programs, showing the broader context in which photography operates, while also embracing the vernacular and the unauthored, is something I think all critics have struggled with because many would prefer if you just did one form of photography. That to them would be the classic canon, and we are always questioning that. Historically, we did David Moore and Axel Poignant, but since then very few Australian photographers or artists have been involved in any parts of our programs. During the 1990s I think it would have been impossible to find any beyond Bill Henson, who had a show at the ICA, and Trent Parke, who’s shown here a little because of his relationship to Magnum; I don't think that people would know Rosemary Laing or Destiny Deacon or any of those people, and so there is a job to be done there. I think that the thing for me, because of my British Council background, I’m every skeptical about doing national shows, so I have to find a way into this. I did, for instance like Brook Andrew’s show TABOO at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2012. But we have to find a different way into this, we have to find the right curator. The way that people get to know about Australian culture and visual art is often through Venice and unfortunately through the commercial art fairs. So if you’re not at Frieze or Paris Photo or FIAC, they’re not going to be seen. We saw Trent’s new work at Paris Photo recently, for instance.

PdA: The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize has always been more sophisticated than Australian photography prizes which, like horse races, don’t lack financial incentive in terms of prize pools but are just as quickly forgotten given their adherence to single photograph entries. This is in contrast with the Deutsche Börse’s recognition of a significant contribution in the form of an exhibition or publication by international photographers working in Europe. What do you see as the prize’s main influence and legacy among photographers themselves?

BR: The Deutsche Börse has run for 18 years and I think it’s like winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for a photographer because you’re recognised by your peers and community. We always have a critic on the jury, but also artists and curators, and I always try to have a breadth – not just ‘photography people’ – and so I think it has a certain gravitas and seriousness around it because it is for a body of work. We might not have the largest prize money on offer for a photography prize in Europe, but people are participating because of the legacy and the stature of the prize. It started with Richard Billingham (1997), Andreas Gursky (1998) and Rineke Dijkstra (1999) as winners, and it has gone on to a very illustrious roll call. Two of this year’s finalists – I can’t tell you who they are! – are up for books, just to flag the increasing importance of the photobook as a form of presentation and distribution for photographers today. We’re going to have a big photobook event here in London in May when Photo London launches.

PdA: In contemporary art theory circles it has been fashionable in recent years to speak of the ‘post-internet’ condition. Did we in fact reach a state of post-photography long ago? Put more simply, what’s left to ‘do’?

BR: There is so much left to do! This is where I’d like to flag that I think we are the first photography-specific gallery in the world to appoint a Digital Curator. Most of our audiences are still so very attached to the analogue that when we as an institution flag debates on our digital wall about what’s happening with the networked image, such as our last project Face to Facebook, they find that difficult and don’t know what we’re talking about. So I do feel there’s a huge job to be done in bringing those debate to the attention of a wider audience who still believe that photography should be in frames on walls, and always to be debating that with them and challenging them on that idea. Now having two years with Katrina Sluis as our Digital Curator, focusing most of her attention on the digital wall, she has shown Jon Rafman and Pierre Tremblay, to name a few, and our most recent artist is Penelope Umbrico who is doing a wonderful project, Sun/Screen, about all her images of sunsets sourced from the internet.[iv] We are also looking at what we can do outside the gallery. Ramillies Street is one of the worst little back alleys in London, but it happens to be the gateway to Soho, the international brand name that everyone knows and loves. So my job is to create a link between the high street – Oxford Street being the busiest fashion street in the world – and Soho, the oldest creative hub in the world from the sixteenth century onwards because of its tailors and now a centre of the post-production industry. We want to make that link with the TPG as a hub, and so to do that physically I’m working towards using the pedestrian space as a fifth gallery, and to create an app for mobile devices so that audiences can engage with TPG anywhere

[1] Jonathan Jones, ‘Flat, soulless and stupid: Why photographs don’t work in art galleries’, The Guardian, 14 November 2014.

[2] Lorenzo Vitturi: Dalston Anatomy, 1 August – 19 October 2014. The book of the same name was originally published in 2013 by SPBH Editions in a signed and numbered edition of 1,000. It was shortlisted for both Aperture’s First PhotoBook Award and MACK’s First Book Award, and was named as one of the best photobooks of 2013 by The New York Times, The Guardian, Martin Parr and others.
Kiffy Rubbo was director of the Ewing & George Paton Galleries, at the University of Melbourne Student Union, 1971–1980.
Penelope Umbrico: Sun/Screen, 4 December 2014 – 18 January 2015.

Published in Photofile, vol. 96, Autumn/Winter 2015, pp. 90-95.

Pedro de Almeida's research in London was supported by Copyright Agency Limited's Cultural Fund through its Creative Individuals Career Fund.

© Pedro de Almeida 2014.