Shiny New Photographers Gallery Opens To The Public

Photographers Gallery

The building on Ramillies Street, , formerly a temporary residence,  has now been made fit for purpose with a number of new additions that will, as Gallery Director Brett Rogers stated as one of its main aims, provide ‘a cultural oasis in the surrounding urban realm’. Although gallery space has been extended and improved, there is a welcome emphasis on both the education programme and the role of new technologies in the medium to which the institution is dedicated.

Designed by architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, the main additions are a two-storey extension on the top of the building, allowing for double the gallery space, and an open plan cafe space on the ground floor. There are now 3 floors of gallery space where there had only been one. Particularly welcome is the raising of the ceilings, giving what is an economical space an airy feel, complemented by the natural light pouring through the large ‘feature’ windows. This is particularly effective on the top floor, where a window at the rear provides distinctly photographic, post-industrial view onto this part of London. The top 2 floors will be dedicated to major exhibitions and the third, named the Wolfson Gallery,  on the second floor, will show more lateral, emerging or commissioned work. The launch exhibitions are Edward Burtynsky’s decade long project ‘Oil’ and the New Delhi based Raqs Media Collective.

Between the two gallery floors, is the ‘Eranda Studio’, a level devoted entirely to education. It will host workshops, talks and courses amongst other activities, and is especially vital in re-establishing this institution’s role in situating photography as distinct within London’s cultural landscape. It had been especially uncomfortable to participate in such activities before the redesign and it is a positive statement of intent to allow so much space to improving the experience. Three smart, permanent features (if a tad gimmicky) are the ‘Study Room’, ‘Touchstone’ and a Camera Obscura integrated into the building. ‘Touchstone’ will be ‘a quarterly display of  a single, groundbreaking photograph by an established photographer or an artist’, according the press release. The display is on a screen situated in front of contemplative bench, and is hoped to encourage visitors to digest images over time.

Moving the cafe to street level makes sense, providing a meeting area or a pretext to visit without visiting. An exciting innovation on this floor is ‘The Wall’, a large digital display that will be home the gallery’s new digital programme. Katrina Sluis, curator of said programme, kicks things off with a celebration/exploration of the animated gif: ‘Born in 1987: The Animated Gif’. This programme is an essential addition to the discourse on contemporary photography. The cafe’s nice, if a bit corporate, and will be run in partnership with ‘Lina Stores’, a revered Soho institution.

What people like me missed the most, though, was the bookshop, which had never really fully recovered from the dizzying heights of its Great Newport Street days, and it is really, really good to have it back. It has an excellent selection and looks to be on track to reclaim its throne as the main destination for photo-bibliophiles. Adjoining it in the basement are the Print Sales, aiming to provide an affordable access point for would-be collectors.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about the shabby character of the two separate Great Newport Street sites in which the gallery had lived for most of 4 decades, but, looking back, it could get quite cramped. The initial move to Ramillies Street, had proved traumatic, poky and claustrophobic as it was, so this re-launch promises to restore this institution’s unique position in the city. Once it beds in, it might seem as if this is the building in which the gallery belongs. Character can then follow. Words/Photo Kerim Aytac © ArtLyst 2012

The newly extended and redesigned Photographers Gallery opens to the public this Saturday the 19th of May.