“You can map the changes in a nation through its photographs”

Children playing outside a corner shop, Barnwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1963 (Colin Jones)

Children playing outside a corner shop, Barnwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1963 (Colin Jones)

Right next to the Royal Academy, a puppet of Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Picture peers out of an astonishing window display. The former prime minister welcomes visitors to the Center for British Photography, an intriguing new art space that has just opened on Jermyn Street alongside quintessentially British brands such as Paxton & Whitfield (cheese) and Hawes & Curtis (suits).

Across the door from Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s foam creation, another display shows Thatcher and her cabinet members, also in the form of a Spitting Image puppet, this time captured through the lenses of photographers Andrew Bruce and Anna Fox.

They are here because the dolls and more importantly the photographs are part of the James and Claire Hyman collection. The couple has been steadily amassing a substantial collection of British photography for many years – James, the center’s director, is also a British art dealer and specializes in photography.

Northern Great Britain (John Bulmer Archive)

Northern Great Britain (John Bulmer Archive)

For some time now, the couple have been sharing their private collections, online at britishphotography.org and by lending their works to exhibitions across the UK. But now they’ve created a permanent space with free entry in the heart of London to do just that – and much more.

There are wonderful things here. From collections of important yet underrated photographers such as Joy Gregory and Maxine Walker, alluding to race and place, to artists new to me like Paloma Tendero, who draws “veins” on her naked body with red thread, in a cumulative sequence of images. There are also works from the Fast Forward project working with the Rainbow Sisters – refugee women who identify as LGBTQ – in which they have used photography as a storytelling tool.

James Hyman would like to point out that while the center focuses on UK photography, “this is not a nationalist view of British photography.” While you can visit and “get the greatest hits,” from Bill Brandt to Martin Parr (both starring in the excellent show The English at Home), the story he wants to tell is more complex.

“You can almost map the changes taking place in a nation with its photography, from a very white and very masculine history to something much more diverse. There are so many stories to tell now.”

James and Claire Hyman (Yan Morvan)

James and Claire Hyman (Yan Morvan)

When I talk to James when he, Claire and their team are finishing the space, I want to emphasize that the collection is only part of the story. “We actually want it to be a platform for other people to put on shows, maybe screenings in regions that wouldn’t otherwise reach London, or maybe get outside curators and give them a platform,” he says.

Cross the threshold of the gallery, and this idea is already clearly realized in the case of Headstrong: Women and Empowerment. It is organized by Fast Forward, a research project led by Anna Fox, which promotes women in photography and presents various forms of self-portraits.

The “In Focus” group of exhibitions on the first floor of the center reflects the commitment to the diversity of voices and forms of contemporary photography. It’s fantastic to see a significant body of work by feminist photographer Jo Spence centered around her thesis written as a mature student in 1982, which related to the Cinderella myth. Here, Spence uses photography along with text and collage as a critical tool to reflect on gender and class stereotypes in Britain engulfed by the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.

Bodybuilder (Hayley Morris-Cafeiro)

Bodybuilder (Hayley Morris-Cafeiro)

Nearby is Heather Agyepong’s project, which explores the history of the bun dance, its connections to enslaved peoples, and how they used it as a form of resistance. Agyepong reimagines the often offensive dancer postcards distributed in Europe during the early 20th century bread and butter craze featuring her as a performer.

It is impossible to imagine a more different Agyepong project than Natasha Caruana’s Fairytale for Sale, in which she scoured the internet for hundreds of photos of wedding dresses being sold, with the bride’s features cropped or blurred, often crudely. Images that were supposed to evoke romantic love become tainted and scarred; at best a document of a commercial transaction, at worst a symbol of a broken life.

There is no shortage of photography in London’s institutions – the Photographers Gallery is nearby in Soho, the V&A has one of the largest collections of the medium in the world and the Tate, after decades of ignoring it, now has a collection to be reckoned with.

David Hockney (Bill Brandt)

David Hockney (Bill Brandt)

Hyman rightly says the British focus makes it stand out in this area. But, as deputy director of the center, Tracey Marshall-Grant, suggests, there is an increasingly “collaborative nature” among photographic institutions.

“Everything works together in a unified way,” he says, “with more access to photography, more opportunities and platforms for photographers, and more ways people see photography as an art form. We’re not trying to fill gaps that other people aren’t [filling]. It’s more connected: doing things in a better, bigger, more impactful way.”

The Center for British Photography opens on Thursday 26 January; britishphotography.org

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