It is early January, and on London’s venerable Jermyn Street, a stone’s throw from St James’s Palace, the sounds of drilling can be heard emanating through the glass doors of number 49. As workers toil to complete the construction, one thing is clear: at 8,000 square feet (743 square metres), when the new Centre for British Photography opens its doors on 26 January, it will be the world’s largest gallery devoted to the subject.
The centre has been founded by Claire and James Hyman to house their collection of more than 3,000 works, assembled over the past 27 years. It features more than 100 British artists, including Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, Martin Parr and Daniel Meadows, Jo Spence, Karen Knorr and Anna Fox.
The new gallery, until recently the site of a gentlemen’s tailor, contains an array of new spaces for showing photography and new media. The low-ceilinged entrance opens out into a double-height space that will provide the area for the main exhibition, starting with a show titled Headstrong curated by Fast Forward, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing the number of women in photography.
Upstairs, on the first floor, are three ‘in focus’ spaces featuring the work of the feminist photographer Jo Spence, self-portraits by Heather Agyepong, and Natasha Caruana’s wedding images framed against a bubblegum-pink wall. A further exhibition space in the basement features documentary photography about British life.
So why is there a need for a centre of British photography? ‘Quite simply because it is neglected and under-appreciated in this country,’ says James Hyman. ‘I think we have some of the best photographers in the world, and yet there has been a tendency to celebrate what is happening in New York, Tokyo or Paris rather than what is around us.’
Hyman is quick to dismiss the suggestion that the focus on Britain has anything to do with nationalism or Brexit. ‘I am the child of a refugee,’ he says. ‘As an academic and an art dealer, I have been interested in the contributions made by people from elsewhere, whether that has been by the School of London painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, or black artists from the Windrush generation [of immigrants from the Caribbean]. I am very interested in the way that cultures are enriched by different kinds of communities.’
He does concede, however, that there is a British aesthetic. ‘There is a strand of documentary photography loved by the British which is epitomised by Bill Brandt,’ he says. ‘It is often quite quirky and narrative and reflects contemporary life. It has been a huge influence on photographers in this country.’ That idiosyncratic style can be seen in the centre’s basement show, inspired by Brandt’s 1936 book The English at Home.
The opening of a free central London gallery by private benefactors presents an intriguing commentary on the current state of art spaces in Britain. With public funding for the arts reduced to a thin gruel, there has been a lot of discussion about the role of patrons and their influence on the nation’s art. It is something that Hyman feels keenly.
‘If you believe, like I do, in the public sector and free access to all, then the question is: how do you achieve that without building a monument to yourself? The answer is to not have your name over the door, allow other people to shape your programme, and give access to art that would otherwise be locked away in a plan chest or a storage unit.’
The centre has a research institute and runs an educational programme of a kind more readily associated with publicly funded museums. It recently teamed up with Imperial College London to deliver a course on the history of British photography, and further educational projects are being planned with Birkbeck University and the University of the Arts London.
All this reflects the Hymans’ commitment to supporting contemporary British photographers from ‘a range of backgrounds and cultures. We are trying to be inclusive and pluralistic. It is important that the narrative shifts from the traditional black-and-white photography by men to one that is more diverse.’
There will also be a shop, with all profits from the sale of books and photographs going towards supporting the charitable activities of the Hyman Foundation, including research and grants for photographers.
With the rise of smartphones and social media, Hyman says it is harder to be a photographer today than ever before. ‘Trying to communicate something meaningful in this medium is incredibly difficult. It is not enough to be a beautiful craftsman any more. It takes a fraction of a second to take a photograph, but it has to have some profundity that goes beyond that momentary sensation.’
In a recent interview, Christie’s former deputy chairman Philippe Garner noted how the market for photography has exploded in the past few years. How does Hyman view these changes? ‘When I started going to auctions in the early 1990s, they were encyclopaedic,’ he says. ‘You could learn everything about the history of photography, from the Victorian era up to the present day.
‘Today is very different: it is all about contemporary photographers. Auction houses will tell you it is because the supply of early photography has dried up, but I would argue that it is also about the bottom line. As a dealer you are trying to build a market. When you believe in an artist, you want to show everyone this wonderful discovery. The focus has shifted.’
Hyman says that the challenge for the private collector is how best to represent the photographers whose work they acquire. ‘We have a very close relationship with the photographers we support, and often buy a series of works or an entire exhibition. It is about telling their story, and that is rarely seen through just one image.
‘We like to work collaboratively, asking ourselves what is the best expression of the photographer’s work and being true to their vision. That is what we hope to achieve with the gallery.’
The Centre for British Photography opens at 49 Jermyn Street in London on 26 January 2023