John Bulmer, The North, ca. 1960
London’s Piccadilly is one of the main arteries of the city. The mile-long stretch of road connects the traffic-choked “circus” to the more genteel surroundings of the Royal Academy of Arts, with Buckingham Palace not far beyond. While slick, commercial art galleries have begun to swallow up the streets to the north, pockets of old Piccadilly remain, not least on Jermyn Street, where traditional purveyors of men’s suits and sundries still dominate.
It is here that British dealer, academic, and photography collector James Hyman has established the Centre for British Photography, which opened on January 26 and celebrates the past and future of photographic practice throughout the United Kingdom. Hyman found the space—an empty Italian tailoring store—only last October, and quickly went about creating a home for the substantial collection of photography that he has built with his wife Claire, chair of the Centre’s board of trustees. Along with housing the roughly three thousand photographs they own, the Centre features three galleries and several research spaces.
This is not the first British institution dedicated to the medium. The Photographers’ Gallery is just up the road, and Autograph has supported underrepresented photographic and filmic practices since the 1980s; the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new photography center is also set to open on May 25, 2023. But Hyman is clear that much more could be done, particularly when it comes to supporting organizations beyond the capital. The Centre functions as a springboard for museums, galleries, and grassroots projects further afield, with its ethos being to shine a light on lesser-known practices while offering a greater degree of autonomy to image makers themselves.
Although it’s privately funded, the Centre will be an open, public-facing institution from the outset, with no entrance fee. “It will not be a private monument, but a public institution,” Hyman says. In an ideal world, he adds, the Centre would eventually be publicly funded, yet, with ever-tightening austerity measures and ferocious cuts to the arts—in 2021, the government announced 50 percent cuts across all arts and design higher education—such a future is far from certain.
One may have expected an air of nationalistic nostalgia from an institution that focuses on British photographic practices, but the Centre boasts a diverse range of artists and perspectives. “This is not about a passport or nationalism. It is about the subject of Britain, as opposed to the identity of the photographer themselves,” says deputy director Tracy Marshall-Grant, whose previous posts include director of Belfast Exposed, a leading photography gallery in Northern Ireland, and director of development at the Royal Photographic Society.
For the inaugural program, an expansive idea of Britishness is evident, with exhibitions that encompass both Britain as a central subject, but also as a place that has nurtured artists exploring issues ranging from gender roles to systemic racism.
The exhibition that visitors first encounter was curated by the research group Fast Forward: Women in Photography, which focuses on contemporary female self-portraiture. Titled Headstrong: Women and Empowerment, it encompasses artists who are first- and second-generation immigrants, refugees, and women who challenge societal perceptions around aging and visibility.
For example, Vicky Hodgson recreated photographs that she was forced to pose for as a child to enter a beauty contest. The series, titled Beauty Contest (2022), is a poignant investigation of the sexist stereotypes associated with aging. For The Bully Pulpit (2018), Haley Morris-Cafiero created and posed as caricatures of online trolls who have demonized her appearance, while Maryam Wahid’s series Women from the Pakistani Diaspora in England (2018–ongoing) considers the perception of migrant identity. The artist visited places around Birmingham, England, that were significant to her mother when she first moved to the city, and posed for portraits while wearing her mother’s traditional Pakistani clothes. The resulting images forge links between the place Wahid grew up and her ancestral heritage.
© Bill Brandt Estate
© Bill Brandt Estate
Also on display are the outcomes from Fast Forward workshops that took place in different venues around the United Kingdom, including at Impressions Gallery in Bradford and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. Photographers and educators worked with people from marginalized groups to help them express themselves creatively through photography, whether that involved making zines or keeping a visual diary. In projects such as Putting Ourselves in the Picture (2021) and I was, I am, I will be (2021), migrant and refugee women visually depict the realities of their lives, from reuniting with loved ones to passing a driving test.
In the Centre’s basement, the allure of more conventional British documentary photography endures in the second major opening exhibition, The English at Home: Photographs from the Hyman Collection. And yet, this selection of some 150 photographs is full of surprises. Alongside well-known accounts of working-class British life by the likes of Bert Hardy and Bill Brandt (who was born in Germany but identified with his English heritage) are images from Karen Knorr’s series Belgravia (1979–81). These see the American photographer peel back the veneer of the English upper crust by including snippets of her sitters’ opinions on politics and identity alongside their portraits. Elsewhere, Czech photographer Markéta Luskačová treats families dedicated to pitching tents on the frigid British seaside with the true curiosity of an outsider.
Back upstairs, three separate displays across the mezzanine focus on individuals who further interrogate representations of women. A presentation of Jo Spence’s Fairy Tales and Photography, or, another look at Cinderella from 1982 (curated by the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive) showcases the photographer’s pivotal work on the performance of gender through annotated photographs that mock “wifely” duties such as cooking and cleaning, and the fantasy of domesticity. Similarly, Natasha Caruana’s series Fairytale for Sale (2011–13), a recent Hyman Foundation acquisition, includes hundreds of images uploaded to e-commerce platforms like eBay, by women hoping to sell their wedding dresses online. The result is an uneasy montage of blurred-out faces and staged portraits, where the dream falls apart.
Finally, a display from Heather Agyepong presents the culmination of an original commission from the foundation. The artist was invited to respond to early twentieth-century imagery of the cakewalk, the dance craze dominated by vaudeville sensation Aida Overton Walker that began as a way for enslaved African Americans to mock enslavers, later becoming a popular form of entertainment for white audiences. Agyepong reimagines the postcards used to commemorate Overton Walker’s performances through her own vaudeville scenes, which incorporate historical and contemporary objects to reflect on ideas of self-worth and agency.
With such a variety of works on show, and so much to prove in an inaugural program, there is a risk of attempting to do too much. However, there’s something undeniably cohesive about the Centre. While a “British” remit may at first seem limiting and restrictive, it instead provides a focus for photographic practices that other major institutions may have overlooked. It demonstrates how British identity is fluid, multifaceted, and ever-changing. For the near future, the Centre promises collaborations across the country, sharing resources, and championing upstarts and in-depth research. One can only hope that its work will resonate far beyond British borders.
Headstrong: Women and Empowerment and The English at Home: Photographs from the Hyman Collection are on view at the Centre for British Photography, London, through April 23, 2023.