Just beyond the Royal Academy, Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet peeks sideways from a remarkable display window. The former prime minister is there to welcome visitors to the British Center for Photography, an intriguing new art space that has just opened on Jermyn Street alongside truly British brands like Paxton & Whitfield (cheese) and Hawes & Curtis (suits).
Across the door from Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s foam creations, in another exhibition Thatcher is shown, again in Spitting Image-dummy form, with cabinet members participating, this time taken through the lens of photographers Andrew Bruce and Anna Fox.
They are here because the puppets and, more importantly, the photographs are part of James and Claire Hyman’s collection. The couple has regularly amassed a large collection of British photography for several years – the centre’s director, James, is also a British art dealer specializing in photographs.
The duo has shared private assets for some time now, lending their work online at britishphotography.org and to exhibitions across the UK. But now they’ve created a permanent space with free entry right in the heart of London to do that and more.
There are great things here. From sets of photos that tackle race and place by important but underappreciated photographers like Joy Gregory and Maxine Walker, to artists new to me like Paloma Tendero, who uses red thread to draw ‘veins’ on her bare body in a cumulative sequence. displays. There are also fragments from Fast Forward’s project where they worked with the Rainbow Sisters, refugee women who identify as LGBTQ, and used photography as a storytelling tool.
James Hyman is keen to emphasize that “British photography is not a nationalist view”, although the center is focused on photography in England. You can “get the biggest hits” by visiting from Bill Brandt to Martin Parr (both featured in an amazing exhibit called The English at Home), but the story he wants to tell is more complex.
“From a very white and very masculine story to something much more diverse, you can almost draw the change in the country with your photographs. Now there are many stories to tell.”
When I talk to James, he wants to emphasize that the collection is just one part of the story, as Claire and the team put the finishing touches on the place. “We actually want it to be a platform for other people to do shows, maybe shows in areas that wouldn’t otherwise reach London, or maybe go outside the curators and give them a platform,” he says.
Cross the threshold of the gallery and that idea is clearly put into action in Headstrong: Women and Empowerment. It is organized by Fast Forward, a research project led by Anna Fox that promotes women in photography and features different forms of self-portraits.
A group of ‘In Focus’ exhibitions on the center’s first floor reflect the dedication to the various voices and forms of contemporary photography. It’s great to see an important workgroup on the theme of feminist photographer Jo Spence’s 1982 thesis dealing with the Cinderella myth, which she wrote as a mature student. Here, Spence uses photography alongside text and collage as a critical tool to reflect gender and class stereotypes in a Britain swept away by the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.
Recently, Heather Agyepong has a project where she explores the history of cakewalk dance, its connections with enslaved people, and how they used it as a form of resistance. Agyepong recreates the often disturbing postcards of dancers circulated in Europe during the child’s toy craze of the early 1900s and features herself as an actress.
You can’t imagine a project different from Agyepong’s project, Natasha Caruana’s Fairy Tale for sale. Here she scoured the internet for hundreds of pictures of wedding dresses for sale, with brides features cropped or often grossly darkened. Images intended to evoke romantic love are tainted and scarred; document of a commercial transaction at best, emblem of shattered lives at worst.
Photography is hardly scarce in London institutions – the Photographers Gallery in Soho is just up the road, the V&A has one of the largest collections of media anywhere in the world, and after decades of ignoring it, Tate is now reckoned with.
Hyman rightly says that his British focus sets him apart in this area. However, there is a growing “collaborative nature” among photography institutions, as the center’s deputy director Tracey Marshall-Grant argues.
“Everything works together in a unified way, with greater access to photography, more opportunities and platforms for photographers, and more ways for people to experience photography as an art form,” he says. We don’t try to fill in the gaps that other people don’t. [filling]. More unified: doing things better, bigger, more effectively.”
The British Center for Photography opens on Thursday, January 26; britishphotography.org