Today sees the launch of the Centre for British Photography, a landmark new exhibition space in the heart of London that will champion the finest photography in Britain, with a particular emphasis on diverse and marginalised voices. Building on the world-renowned Hyman Collection of British photography – started by James and Claire Hyman in 1996 – the Centre opens with seven exhibitions and features over 150 works by the likes of Shirley Baker, Bill Brandt, Martin Parr and Anna Fox.
The Centre for British Photography opens with seven shows: two lead exhibitions and five ‘in focus’ displays spread across three floors. The most hotly anticipated of the shows is Headstrong: Women and Empowerment, which was curated in collaboration with advocacy group Fast Forward: Women in Photography. “Half of the pictures in the Hyman Collection are by women and for years the Collection has supported Fast Forward, so we were keen to work with them on our first major exhibition,” says Tracy Marshall-Grant, deputy director of the Centre for British Photography. “It was important to us to begin by demonstrating our commitment to presenting a diverse programme and to platforming others, whether its artists, curators, organisations or institutions.”
Made up entirely of women and focusing on self-portraiture, the show explores how the medium of photography has been used as an instrument of empowerment for women, as well as one of the key feminist political tools to affect change. “The exhibition presents women who have made work that is concerned with how they are represented, what they are dealing with in their everyday lives and what it means to embrace diversities that challenge the conservative order of a patriarchal society,” says Marshall-Grant. “The work is powerful but often playful. It makes big points but often with a lot of humour.”
There are numerous highlights in the show, which includes works by Rainbow Sisters, a group of LGBTQ+ women who are in the process of seeking, or have been granted, asylum in the UK, but Marshall-Grant cites the multi-part, self-portrait work by Rosy Martin as her personal favourite. “I believe that she is one of the most important but most under-appreciated contemporary artists working with photography,” she says. “It is powerful visually, but also moving emotionally, and deals with issues around being a carer.”
The Centre for British Photography’s other lead show, The English at Home, explores the central place of the home in British photography in the 20th century. Inspired by Bill Brandt’s seminal book of the same name, it offers up a fascinating critique of the English class system. “We’re very excited to present four works from Bill Brandt’s celebrated series The Perfect Parlour Maid as part of the show,” says Marshall-Grant. “Other highlights include Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr’s collaborative series, June Street, as well as Karen Knorr’s series Belgravia, which focuses on people’s living rooms but show quite different aspects of class and society.”
Elsewhere, the ‘In Focus’ displays centre around the work of one photographer or a specific body of work. Key photographers featured include Heather Agyepong for her 2020 series Wish You Were Here, which focuses on the work of Aida Overton Walker, the celebrated African American vaudeville performer who challenged the problematic narratives of black performers; Natasha Caruana’s Fairytale for Sale, which explores wedding customs in the UK; and Jo Spence’s Fairytales and Photography, which draws on her politics as a socialist feminist to untangle the gender and class oppressions interconnected in these historic tales.
Above all, the Centre has been opened to create a new home for British photography, and to usher in a new era for the artform. “We are passionate about photography in Britain and, for many years, have sought to support it through acquisitions, commissions, donations and loans,” says James Hyman, the Centre’s founding director. “In 2020, we created a charity to support photography in Britain in all its diversity – setting up a Centre for British Photography feels like the next step.”
The Centre for British Photography opens to the public on 26 January 2023, with exhibitions running until 30 April 2023
49 Jermyn Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6LX