Issue #256  3/2/2023
Centre for British Photography Opens in London to Enthusiastic Crowds

By Michael Diemar

Exterior of the Centre for British Photography. (Photo © Centre for British Photography)
Exterior of the Centre for British Photography. (Photo © Centre for British Photography)

When James and Claire Hyman announced in 2022 that their foundation was going to open the Centre for British Photography in the new year, it was difficult to guess exactly what to expect. Well, it opened to the public on January 26th, and the results to date have been very impressive. The Centre is getting around 500 visitors per day after opening, as well as getting a warm press response.

Located on 49 Jermyn Street, just around the corner from The Ritz on Piccadilly, the space measures 8,000 square feet spread over three floors, in what used to be an upmarket clothes shop. There are exhibition spaces on each floor. The ground floor also has a bookshop and a print sales department, with all proceeds going to the charity's public events and grants program, while the basement also houses the research department and archive.

The center opened with no less than seven exhibitions, big and small, Headstrong: Women and Empowerment, The British at Home, Wish You Were Here (a series by Heather Agyepong), Fairytale for Sale (works by Natasha Caruana), Jo Spence - Fairytales and Photography, Platinum Prenotations (platinum prints by Paul Hill), and last, but certainly not least, works that The Hyman Collection commissioned in 2015 from Anna Fox and Andrew Bruce, who responded to the original "Spitting Images" puppets that James and Claire Hyman had bought a few years before. "Spitting Image" was one of the most popular television programs on British TV in the 1980s and 1990s, using puppets to lampoon politicians, the royal family and celebrities. Such was its impact that two politicians, David Steel and David Owen, later claimed that the puppets of them had ended their political careers, that voters simply stopped taking them seriously.

I stopped by a week before the opening to speak to James Hyman. There were workmen milling about, the windows were still covered in paper. As for the puppet of Margaret Thatcher, Hyman fished it out of box, "This will go in the window!"

James Hyman and the Centre for British Photography just prior to its highly successful opening. (Photo by Michael Diemar)
James Hyman and the Centre for British Photography just prior to its highly successful opening. (Photo by Michael Diemar)


I asked Hyman about the name and he explained, "It’s called Centre for British Photography, but it’s important to point out that we want to promote what is happening in Britain, not whether somebody has a British passport or not. It’s not at all nationalistic. In fact, it’s celebrating the very opposite, the contributions made by people from very diverse backgrounds. When people come in here, yes, there is a show called "The English at Home", which starts with Bill Brandt, goes on to Martin Parr, Richard Billingham and others, but that’s not the show you see when you walk through the front door. It’s called "Headstrong: Women and Empowerment", with works by artists from many different backgrounds and heritages that range from Iran, Spain, the U.S., the Caribbean and Pakistan--people who all contribute to our culture. I’m Jewish, the child of a refugee, so my view of Britishness will be very different from somebody whose family goes back generations in this country. As an academic of 35 years, I have always been interested in the contributions made by people who have come from somewhere else. And that to me, is what is so stimulating about British culture, the way it is enriched by all these different heritages. The name has nothing to do with Brexit flag waving, it’s exactly the opposite."

Hyman launched the British Photography website in 2015 but he places the start of the Centre for British Photography much earlier than that, "My wife Claire and I began collecting in 1996, focusing on Modern British painting, School of London, Frank Auerbach, Bridget Riley, that sort of thing. Increasingly over the years, we became engaged with photography. Initially, it was a very classical, modernist collection. We sold some of the highlights in a single-owner evening sale at Christie’s New York in 2007, in order to focus on early French photography, salt prints and paper negatives. Then we began to engage more with what has happening in this country, and to support it. I love Charles Nègre, Gustave Le Gray and Baldus but there have been major publications and shows on those artists. When it came to British photography, it was a neglected area, both nationally and internationally. As collectors, it felt like we could be more useful. The collection grew very rapidly after that, because we started buying up whole bodies of work, entire exhibitions, really collecting in depth."

The works in the collection needed to be seen, Hyman explains. "We believe in the public realm, not to have a private collection hidden away. The way to square that circle was to start a website on our British photography in 2015. That led us to lending more and more works to exhibitions, because they were visible to curators. It was very easy for them. They could send a van around and have a show, with no charge for the loans. We wanted the works to be seen. And then we made two donations, the first consisted of 125 photographs to the Yale Center for British Art, the second of 100 works to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. After that we set up a foundation to support British photography, which has now led to the opening of the Centre for British Photography. So it has been a personal journey. I guess it might seem there was a logic to it, but it was just the way things evolved."

Hyman stresses that the Centre for British Photography is much more than a showcase for the collection, "Part of what we’re saying is, 'we have all these amazing pictures, and we’d like them to be more visible.' But the ambitions are much bigger than that. It’s not just about our collection. First of all, it’s a charity we set up, I’m just one of four trustees and we have an advisory board of 12 people. The statement we’re making with the opening shows is that the main one is curated by an outside organization, Fast Forward, and they have curated "Headstrong: Women and Empowerment". Two of the dozen photographers in the show are in our collection, the others aren’t. So we are offering different perspectives here. Up here on the first floor, we have a partnership with Birkbeck College, part of London University, and we’re jointly putting on a show of Jo Spence. Whether it’s exhibitions, events or symposia, we want people from outside to help shape the program. One of the tests of success could be that I’m not involved at all, that’s it completely independent, self-sustaining and doesn’t need our input. We plan to do three rotations a year, with around six exhibitions in each."

Another ambition is to help and support talent, no matter what age, Hyman explains. "One thing I’m very interested in doing is actually to be mindful of the different stages of an artist’s career. We do want to support emerging artists with our grants program, but I’m also interested in how to support an artist in mid or late career. In photography, you might get somebody who is very respected, in the late stage of their career, but still hasn’t had a proper monograph on them. A first-book award needn’t be focused on 25-year-olds, they could include artists in their seventies. There is a generation whose practice was analogue, negatives, contact sheets, and prints. They’re fascinating archives and there’s a real worry among a number of photographers as to what is going to happen to their work. We could be one of the answers to that, whether it’s publishing a book, exhibiting the work or make it part of the archive and the research center here. We are partnering with a university, I can’t announce which one yet, but the idea is to jointly run a research institute and get scholarship behind what we’re doing. One of the attractions with our donations to Yale and the Bodleian was exactly that they were research institutes, that the material would be used by students. We are keen do that as well here, but it won’t just be material in boxes, we want to build an audience through our exhibitions and events."

The entrance way for the Centre for British Photograph just prior to opening. (Photo by Michael Diemar)
The entrance way for the Centre for British Photograph just prior to opening. (Photo by Michael Diemar)

Hyman has often stated that he feels that British photography has been neglected, both within and outside the country. "The question as to why is big and complex. One of the theories I have is that if you look to the US in the last 100 years, there were incredible printers like Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. The idea of a photograph being a beautiful object was part of that culture, they were making an aesthetic case for the beauty of a 10 by 8 print. If you look at the surrealists in Paris, and photography was the quintessential surrealist medium, the way they presented it in their journals and books was done with great care. In the UK, we had the magazine Picture Post. Now I love Picture Post and we have a complete run in the collection, as well as a lot of vintage prints from it, but it meant that photography was something you would see in a magazine. And what you consumed was documentary storytelling. What we’re saying is, "Yes it’s great but there’s all this other photography which we should also be celebrating." We have had a bit of hurdle in this country when it comes to a collector base, supporting what is happening here. I’m as guilty as anyone. When I started out, I was buying from American dealers, and my taste was informed by the canon that had emerged in America in the last 20 - 30 years. But there are other stories to tell. We have incredible photographers here that aren’t well enough known internationally and not integrated enough into the story of British art either."

And that’s an important story, Hyman says, "I know that this is a center for photography, but what I’m partly trying to do--apart from elevating its status--is reinforce the case that if you’re telling the story of art practice, nationally or internationally, then photography has to be embedded in that. It shouldn’t be this cuckoo in the nest which it sometimes feels like in some institutions, when nobody knows quite how to engage with photographic practice. For example, if an institution has photographs alongside some very good painting or sculpture, they will include photographs of the practitioners. But having a photograph of Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, is to my mind just reducing the photograph to the celebrity you’re interested in, and that’s not respecting photography as a medium. So I think we still have a long way to go in this country. There’s still this thing about photography, the speed and the ease with which it’s done, unlike painting which takes time. But it’s exactly because of the speed and ease of photography that makes it the most difficult medium when it comes to producing something remarkable: not something shot on iPhone by anyone. What we can do is celebrate the photographic objects, and I have spent years saying that a photograph is just as much an object as a painting or a sculpture. That’s one thing that I like about the Bill Brandt Henry Moore show and catalogue, which we have lent material to. They show not only the front of the prints but also the backs, with stamps and annotations, making it clear that the photographs are objects".

The foundation has the present space for two years, and the meter is running, Hyman explains, "Our foundation has put in the money, but the center will only survive financially with other people coming onboard, be it institutions, foundations or individuals. In starting something up, you can be very small, very careful and hope you will grow. Or you can do the opposite, create something pretty huge, and hope that by doing something really exciting, you’re going to enthuse potential donors and get support that way. We have started very big, very central in London, and very expensive. The budget for renovating this place has turned out to be double what I was quoted. It’s not only costing an enormous amount of money but also my time and energy. But I believe in it and I have put my money where my mouth is. I think it will work, that there is an audience for it. But I don’t have unlimited resources, and it won’t survive unless others get on board. This is phase one, proof of concept, people who believe in our vision. The ideal would be that the foundation we set up would be one funder, but not the only supporter. At the moment it’s just us, but I wouldn't be doing it if I didn’t believe other people would be joining us."

The Centre has plenty of built-in storage space, as James Hyman illustrates here. (Photo by Michael Diemar)
The Centre has plenty of built-in storage space, as James Hyman illustrates here. (Photo by Michael Diemar)

I asked Hyman how the Centre of British Photography will fit into the existing infrastructure of photography institutions and museums that include photography.

"We really want to work with others. Our ethos is about partnership, collaboration, having people from outside contribute to and shape our program and direction. I really hope it can lead to everything being a bit more joined up in London and beyond. There used be a group, with directors and curators in London getting together. Something like that needs to start up again. Also, if we joined forces, there could be gallery walks, a newsletter, community website and much else.

"Had we been here a bit earlier, we could have done a show to contextualize the Chris Killip exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, for instance. I'm keen that we work together, and I had a good discussion about it with Duncan Forbes at the V&A. I see us as adding to the mix, with our particular focus. Plus, we have many important institutions outside London that we'd love to work with. One place is the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. which is a wonderful champion of his vision of documentary photography. It's strength is as a photographer-driven institution and Martin has created a real buzz around the forms of documentary photography he so loves. Another one is the Bodleian Library, run by Richard Ovenden. He is very committed to photography, and they’re developing a wonderful photographic archive.

"We also have an archive and an educational remit, but our emphasis is very different. We are exhibition led, we can stage multiple exhibitions simultaneously, and we want the work to be seen by as big an audience as possible. It's central to our mission that our exhibitions and related events reach a large, diverse public--the fact that all our shows are free is really important."

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.