diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 01, 2018

Cheapskate visits... The Photographers' Gallery

The UK's first gallery devoted solely to photography opened in Covent Garden in 1971, and more recently moved to a converted warehouse off Oxford Street. It's well hidden, accessed down some steps round the back of Boots, in a grim backstreet where it is easily the standout building. On the ground floor is a cafe frequented by the visually confident, and the basement contains a superbly alluring shop. To get any further up the building, and poke round the galleries, costs £4. But come before noon any day of the week and admission is completely free, so more fool everyone who visits in the afternoon.

The first gallery's two floors up (take the stairwell to your left, or slum it in the lift). At present what's on display are photos of the cast of a groundbreaking Broadway opera, with an all-black cast, from way back in 1934. Intended mostly as publicity shots, the collection is an eye-opening reminder that artistic freedom isn't a recent invention, and brave contemporary work has always had its place. Hike up again, and the fourth and fifth floors feature dozens of polaroids taken by the film director Wim Wenders in the 70s and 80s. The walls are lined by tiny squares of faded Americana, from snapshots of the crowds mourning John Lennon to a bottle of ketchup on a skew-whiff table.
"Taking Polaroids always felt to me like a very different act than ‘photographing‘ as such. The camera itself was almost considered a toy, not a ‘serious’ instrument, and taking pictures with it was fun. There was something playful, carefree, almost reckless about the action. I think it was because the ‘thing‘ in your hand couldn’t be multiplied which made the result somehow ephemeral. Nothing compared to the Polaroid experience. It was a little magic act each time – nothing more, nothing less." [Wim Wenders]
I loved the randomness of his subjects, portrayed in muted shades of yellow and brown. I loved the throwaway nature of the framing, uncommon in an era when every roll of film was precious. But most of all I loved watching a millennial audience walking round agog at how images once used to be captured, then whipping out their phones to upload Wim's blurry images to their own digital cloud. Both exhibitions continue until the end of next week, after which yet another smart take on photography will be displayed in the galleries instead. Arrive after ten but before twelve to enjoy the cheapskate's view.

The Photographers' Gallery is at 16–18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW

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