After an 18-month closure, the renovated Photographers' Gallery opens to the public today.
When the Gallery first planned the move from Covent Garden to the other side of Soho, it was in anticipation of a brand new home. The original plan was to demolish a newly-acquired a former warehouse on Ramillies Street and construct a purpose-built facility. Economic concerns curtailed that idea, so the Gallery, working with Irish architects O'Donnell and Tuomey, decided in 2009 to move anyway and renovate. After 18 months in the new building, the shutters came down in September 2010 and the workmen moved in.
The finished gallery looks nothing like the compromise that such conditions might entail, and is almost unrecognisable from its former incarnation. Outside, the building's brick patterns have been covered by cutaway patches of black and a dramatic new logo that echos the building's form. At ground level, the former reception area has been converted into a cafe (operated by the gallery's Soho neighbour, Italian deli Lina Stores), with a wraparound window looking out toward the pedestrianised strip that runs up to Oxford Street. Purists who disdain the gastronomic focus will be placated by the huge digital wall at the entrance, currently used to display an exhibition made up of animated GIFs.
The building's first floor (formerly the cafe & bookshop) has been converted into offices, while the second floor contains an educational study room and a space for lectures and talks, which includes a camera obscura pointing out onto the street below. The third floor (formerly offices) is now a climate- and light-controlled gallery space. Above this are the two new galleries. The fifth floor has high ceilings and a huge full length window on the north side, with a view onto Oxford Street and Fitzrovia. It also affords a view of the currently blank brick walls on the opposite side of Ramillies Street, which the Gallery has obtained permission to hang photographs on.
By putting the galleries on three neighbouring floors at the top, the Gallery's directors have managed the difficult feat of maintaining a focus on the building as a place to view art whilst also keeping the money-making parts of the operation prominent: the cafe is bound to be hugely popular among Oxford Street shoppers, while the bookshop and print sales have moved to an expanded space in the basement. The only real drawback is the entry fee for some shows. Whilst most exhibitions will remain free, we were told by one member of staff that, as a condition of Arts Council funding, there will be some paid exhibitions.
This doesn't include the two current exhibitions. The top floors are devoted to Edward Burtynsky's Oil, an ongoing series of detailed studies the Canadian photographer has made over the past 13 years of humanity's complex relationship with the black stuff. By his own admission, Burtynsky "shoots for the wall", and these mesmerising photographs, showing huge oil refineries and serried ranks of American military planes and Bangladeshi ship-breakers and, most recently, the aftermath of the disaster at BP's Macondo oil well in 2010, show mankind at its rapacious worst, but avoid coming across as didactic.The third floor gallery is given over to India-based Raqs Media Collective, who have animated an old photograph from their country's colonial period.
The Gallery can be proud of its new home, but the real challenge is still to come: positioning itself as the de facto home of photography in London, at a time when the medium is changing rapidly and has found itself a niche in many larger museums (the V&A's new photography gallery being one example). Photographers and critics have questioned whether such a dedicated space is necessary any more, to which the Gallery has strongly defended itself. It could hope for no better response than a successful re-launch.
The Photographers' Gallery is at 16-18 Ramillies Street, W1. Entry is free.