50 Years of The Photographer’s Gallery: 1980s

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In celebration of The Photographers’ Gallery 50th anniversary, a list of its most significant exhibitions have been gathered together. Here, director Brett Rogers talks us through the highlights of the 1980s

When talking about the photography scene of the 1980s, David Brittain, curator of Light Years: The Photographers’ Gallery at 50, told BJP recently, “It was a mad, experimental, risk-taking period where all sorts of stuff was thrown into the pot.” The Gallery’s director, Brett Rogers, echoes this sentiment. “The 80s saw a lot of experimentation enter into the medium, and into exhibition making too,” she says. “It was also a time when ideas about what photography was, and what constituted ‘photographic’ practices, came under scrutiny and began to be challenged, and the Gallery’s programme definitely reflected this.” 

The Photographers’ Gallery is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, Rogers and her team have gone back through the archives and selected 50 of the most significant moments from both the gallery’s history, and the history of the medium too. 

One of the first exhibitions spotlighted from the decade is a group show about holography, which was, according to the exhibition text, a chance to explore brand new technologies available to photographers and artists at the time. Titled Light Years Ahead: International Holography (1981) it “brought together artists who were naturally cross-disciplinary – across the arts and sciences,” Rogers says, and it reflected the innovation of the 80s fittingly.

George Rodger – David Goldblatt, held at The Photographers’ Gallery, 21 August – 14 September 1974 Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery Archive, London
Five Years with the Face, held at The Photographers’ Gallery, 19 April – 18 May 1985 Poster design by Neville Brody Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery Archive, London
Image from The Face exhibition © The Photographer's Gallery Archive
Image from The Face exhibition © The Photographer's Gallery Archive

Fashion and editorial photography also gained a platform at the Gallery during this decade with some highlighted exhibitions including a Nick Knight solo show (1989) and Five Years With The Face (1985), and elsewhere in the programme, the term ‘documentary’ really began to be expanded too.

“While the Gallery continued to showcase important social documentary projects such as Derek Bishton and John Reardon’s Home Front (1984), it also offered a space for more experimental work such as the phototherapy practices of Jo Spence and Rosy Martin (1987),” says Rogers. She also adds that, “new kinds of British documentarists like Martin Parr began to emerge whose installations were playful and irreverent.” Parr’s 1982 show Bad Weather, another of Rogers’ highlights, featured umbrellas and meteorological reports alongside the images themselves, extending the photographer’s world out of the frame.

The Photographers’ Gallery is featuring 15 exhibitions from the 1980s in total – more than the selections for any other decade, and making up nearly one third of the entire 50. When asked why this is, Rogers says that a current resurgence of interest particularly from young audiences and artists in this period is what shaped their choices.

“The dynamism, diversity and experimentation of practices at the time which was reflected through the programme in the 1980s made it hard to edit our selection down,” she explains. “In addition, the acquisition of a new additional building in 1981 at 5 Great Newport Street, meant there was suddenly much more scope to bring established and new voices into the programme and show them alongside each other.” From formative documentary exhibitions such as David Goldblatt’s South Africa (1986) to D-Max (1988) featuring young artists such as Zak Ové, David A.Bailey and Ingrid Pollard, she explains, the Gallery was able to juxtapose contrasting practices in the 1980s in a far more in-depth and dynamic way.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London