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Source Photographic Review - Back Issue Archive - Issue 68 Autumn 2011 - Feature Page - Do We Still Need Photography Galleries?  - Feature Article by Rebecca Hopkinson.

Do We Still Need Photography Galleries?
by Rebecca Hopkinson & Richard West

Source - Issue 68 - Autumn - 2011 - Click for Contents

Issue 68 Autumn 2011
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Many galleries now exhibit photography. This prompts the question, do we need specialist photography galleries? To answer this question we have conducted a survey to find out just how much photography is shown in contemporary art spaces and asked curators what they think of the role of medium-specific galleries.

If you are a photography enthusiast the answer is simple: photography shows make up just less than 10% of the programmes of contemporary art galleries (151 exhibitions) and the small number of photo-galleries stage nearly as many photo shows (128 exhibitions). But there are more subtle questions about what photography is being shown.

To some extent this is a matter of definition. There appears to be little photography shown in Scotland outside of its two photography galleries. The Exhibitions Curator at the Dundee Contemporary Art, Graham Domke, says, "We certainly feature photography. But it is relatively rare that we would exclusively do a photography show... There probably are fewer photography exhibitions right now even though there are more exhibition spaces. The biggest reason is probably down to the multi-disciplined approach artists tend to adopt... I think more photographs are being shown but not in medium-specific exhibitions". Recent examples of this trend would include Thomas Hirschhorn’s It’s Burning Everywhere at Dundee, which featured hundreds of found photos alongside sculptural works, or the Jean-Marc Bustamante show at Fruitmarket Gallery.

Daniel Herrmann, Curatorial Programme Manager at the Whitechapel Gallery says, "The choice is always the artist, not the medium. I hardly know of any galleries which would not choose photography as it’s totally mainstream nowadays". But this doesn’t explain why some galleries (like the Whitechapel) have recently had an almost exclusively photographic programme while other venues like Camden Arts Centre (and 27 others) have shown no photography at all for years. Ann Marie Watson, Exhibitions Programmer at Camden, says, "I don’t see any difference between a photographer and another kind of artist. I don’t think there are any reasons why a gallery would not choose a photographer other than because they don’t want to work with that artist".The charts show exhibitions in arts council funded galleries from 2009 - 2011. Also included are the Tate galleries and Irish Museum of Modern Art (who receive direct government funding). An exhibiton must have been on for more than three weeks to be listed. Information was unavailable for 25 venues. Photography is broadly defined. 
The charts show exhibitions in arts council funded galleries from 2009 - 2011. Also included are the Tate galleries and Irish Museum of Modern Art (who receive direct government funding). An exhibiton must have been on for more than three weeks to be listed. Information was unavailable for 25 venues. Photography is broadly defined. 

Implicit in this idea – that galleries are working with ‘artists’ – is that they are also working within art history. Tate Modern is one institution which has featured several high profile photo-shows recently, among them Roni Horn (2009) and Exposed, Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (2010). The museum’s Photography Curator, Simon Baker, says their remit is to "keep photography within the history of art. We like to think we can show any kind of photography here, but there needs to be a connection... Next year we’re showing Lewis Baltz, Prototypes, currently at the Art Institute of Chicago. They showed him with Donald Judd and other minimalist sculptors who showed with him in the 60s. We would like to do that kind of thing here. Photography doesn’t happen in a vacuum".

But are there other contexts for showing photography? Daniel Herrmann at the Whitechapel says, "Photography has absolutely entered the canon of fine art and that conversation – of whether photography can be fine art – is irrelevant. Dedicated photography galleries were at the forefront of fighting for artistic emancipation but now the fight’s won". This might suggest photography galleries no longer have anything to offer but Herrmann says, "They contribute to a more thorough understanding and because they’re putting a particular medium in focus they’re important to their clientele – as a champion to younger artists etc".

This emphasis on finding new artists is repeated by Sean Kissane, Head of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art: "Photo galleries are very important, if only because, with all art forms, if an artist is going to succeed they need patronage... We’re a museum and work slowly and do relatively few shows, so we’re not a vehicle for representing Irish photography, we don’t have the capacity. The Gallery of Photography would have shown 30 exhibitions, both Irish and international, in the same time we would do only a few shows, we could never compete with them. And similarly they couldn’t compete with our resources. We’re expected to be economical and within the canon, not discovering new photographers. Their role is to find new amazing photographers".

It is left to photography gallery curator Karen Downey at Belfast Exposed to articulate a distinctive purpose for a photography gallery. She says their role is distinct from art venues in "supporting the development of work in response to place, identity and history" through commissions, and arising from their extensive photographic archive. People In Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (2011) and Archive Belfast by Claudio Hils (2004) are notable examples of this process.

It would appear that although contemporary art gallery curators may be broadly supportive of the continuing role of photography galleries, the medium-specific justification for their existence is one they are unlikely to agree with. Sean Kissane says, "There is a difference between an exhibition on the history and development of photography and one about artists who have trained in another medium and pick up a camera. But I don’t think that dilutes photography, in a way it enriches it. More useful is to ask where contemporary art practice is. The idea of being post-modern is being able to express yourself in many ways. Having one medium can be suspect. By saying that photography is a medium that has to be protected, are you saying photography is dead? It’s the same question they asked about painting in the 1970s".

Other articles mentioning Lewis Baltz:

Other articles on photography from the 'Gallery-Based' category ▸