Jermyn Street is one of London’s oldest and grandest commercial strips. This is Beau Brummel territory – a district of gentlemen’s clubs and costumers. Not so long ago, you’d come to Jermyn Street for fresh shirts, new boots, hours in the sauna, or a discreet lunch with your “niece”.
An alien presence has arrived. Flanked by Alfred Dunhill and the Piccadilly Arcade, until recently the curved glass storefront of 49 Jermyn Street was home to Boggi, an Italian menswear store. But the tastefully besuited mannequins have been replaced by photographs of Spitting Image puppets: the welcome display of a new institution dubbed, rather grandly, the Centre for British Photography.
Enter the double doors and instead of a temple to genteel menswear, you’ll find an uproarious display of self-portraits by naughty women. This is the opening show, Headstrong: Women and Empowerment, an exhibition of contemporary works on a broadly feminist theme curated by photographer Anna Fox, who leads the Fast Forward: Women in Photography project.
There are irresistibly feisty responses to the everyday unpleasantnesses of navigating the world as a woman. A nod to the building’s former occupants comes in Sarah Maple’s Self Portrait with Pocket Square, in which the artist appears beautifully besuited. Standing as though for a wedding portrait in front of a huge floral display, she cups her hands around her protruding (pregnant) belly, a lit cigarette dangling from her vividly painted lips.
A feminist artist who needles cultural expectations around Muslim identity as well as entrenched sexism, Maple is a provocateur, inviting us to revisit preconceptions of how women should behave – here she reminds us of how a pregnant woman’s body becomes public property.
The Iranian-Canadian artist Shirin Fathi explores beauty ideals in her series The Disobedient Nose, inspired by the normalisation of rhinoplasty among Iranian women. Fathi pictures herself as though for a series of northern Renaissance portraits, with the offending protuberance modified and embroidered.
Haley Morris-Cafiero’s The Bully Pulpit (2018) takes its title from Teddy Roosevelt, who used the term approvingly to describe a prominent platform from which to promote an agenda. Today, Morris-Cafiero suggests, the public platform of political office has been replaced by social media, and the politician by the online mob. Here, the artist turns the tables on trolls who attacked her following an earlier body of work (Wait Watchers), exploring the way larger bodies are viewed in public space.
For The Bully Pulpit she tracked down online photos of those who had previously trolled her, then restaged the pictures using costumes, wigs and prosthetics, incorporating the trolls’ comments into the final image. In one, she appears as a man in a towel taking a selfie with “You’re fat and gross and your arms make me want to puke” etched in steam on the mirror. “What’s wrong with body shaming?” says a neon sign behind a white-haired figure in a burgundy vest. Morris-Cafiero uses humour to reclaim space, but also points out how judgmental the online image world is for women.
Photographer and psychological therapist Rosy Martin’s altar-like tableau I didn’t put myself down for sainthood (2018), displayed at the Arnolfini in Bristol last year, explores the ambivalence of care. Posing as a reluctant angel, she invites us to ponder the expectation that women will take the role of caregiver for their elderly parents: a relationship in which love and duty can come bundled up with exhaustion, frustration, resentment and hopelessness.
Together with Jo Spence (one of the most important figures in late 20th century British photography), Martin pioneered “photo therapy”, inviting the subject to revisit their personal history by embodying the figure in an old photograph. Here, we see Martin performing as her mother and father – poses echoed by Spence in a separate display on the floor above.
Headstrong occupies a high-ceilinged central space. Beyond, a shop displays books and high-end prints for sale. Above, a mezzanine offering three little galleries for solo displays. The highlight is a sizzling selection of work by Spence unpicking the “Cinderella myth”: the dream of a white wedding, the aspiration to royalty and the idea that beauty and allure will fix all ills.
Where Spence looked to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, a younger photographer, Natasha Caruana, revisits similar territory a generation on, in the year Prince William married Kate Middleton. Fairytale for Sale (2011-13) is a collection of images used by women to sell their wedding dresses. In each picture, the bride has obscured her face (sometimes in an inadvertently creepy way), recasting the wedding photo as the site of unpleasant incident.
British Ghanaian artist and performer Heather Agyepong’s Wish You Were Here revisits popular photography of the early 20th century, in staged scenes evoking Aida Overton Walker, a vaudeville performer known as the “Queen of the Cakewalk”. As with Morris-Cafiero’s series on cyber bullying, Agyepong’s restaging of vintage postcard scenes uses photography as a tool of witty subversion.
In the basement is an archive fitted with rolling shelves, and a low-ceilinged gallery for collection displays. The launch show explores the theme of home in 20th century documentary photography, from Bill Brandt’s portraits of 1930s domestic servants in Kensington, to Ken Grant’s claustrophobic interiors of neighbours congregating in Birkenhead in the 1980s and 90s.
The English at Home packs a lot into a small room, and acknowledges the importance of mid-century magazines like Picture Post as well as evolving ideas about access, voyeurism and social tourism. A whole wall is given to Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr’s 1973 series showing the front rooms in a terrace of apparently identical houses in Salford.
It’s shown opposite Karen Knorr’s irresistibly naughty series Belgravia (1979), for which she staged tableaux showing London’s upper social set paired with more or less outrageous statements suggesting their wealth, privilege and entitlement.
What’s in a name? In the case of the Centre for British Photography – which feels like it arrived out of nowhere – rather a lot. The venerable Royal Photographic Society, in Bristol, already describes itself as the UK’s leading photography organisation. London is home to the respected Photographer’s Gallery, as well as Autograph (formerly the Association of Black Photographers). The V&A – home to a collection of 800,000 photographs – perhaps has better claim than any to such a title.
Rather smaller lettering on the front door identifies this as the home of the Hyman Collection, built up by the art dealer James Hyman and his wife Claire, which has focused largely on British photography since 2010. The centre will be both a public showcase for the collection and a platform for visiting exhibitions.
Why opt for the hubristic name rather than simply calling it the “Hyman Foundation for British Photography”? Is this an institution with a long-term plan, or an opportunistic pop-up making good use of an empty commercial property?
What is the relationship between the centre and Hyman’s dealership, which sells works by Dafydd Jones, Anna Fox, Heather Agyepong, Bill Brandt and other photographers represented in his collection?
Perhaps these questions are outmoded – in the era of Hauser & Wirth Somerset (the rural British outpost of a commercial gallery that reads much like a well-funded public institution), the lines between public institutions and commercial interests in the art world are now blurred.
For punters and snappers alike, the more important takeaway from this is that London has a new free-to-enter photography gallery – an important new platform for a medium that has long considered itself an overlooked junior sibling in the art landscape.
The Centre for British Photography is now open to the public