Photographers' Gallery relaunched and reviewed

New exterior of the Photographers' Gallery, Ramilies St New exterior of the Photographers' Gallery, Ramilies St - Kate Elliott
Posted: Mon May 21 2012

Central London gets its camera club back now that a slick new Photographers' Gallery has re-emerged in its spiritual home of Soho. Ossian Ward surveys the site and Edward Burtynsky's hard-hitting show on energy excess, 'OIL'

Original plans for the newly sited Photographers' Gallery were for a striking, angular structure with giant floor-to-ceiling lightwells grasping for the sky. After a fiscal wake-up call (the budget was cut nearly in half to £9 million), the Irish architects O'Donnell+Tuomey returned with a handsome refit and recladding of an old brick building, plus what amounts to an extravagant loft conversion, adding two whole storeys and just one thin sliver of those firmament-reaching windows.

What hasn't been lost is any of the interior space. The upper floors boast two airy new galleries, while a bookshop, print sales room and café have been dug from the ground floor and basement levels. In fact, the climb-down from landmark building to tasteful conversion is no great loss, given the building's move to an unprepossessing corner plot in a back alley south of Oxford Street.

Even if some shining beacon of avant-garde architecture had been plonked here no one would ever have been able to see it properly, so narrow are the surrounding streets and so restricted the sightlines. The miracle is that anything so positive could grow in such a tight, unloved space, recalling the brilliant integration of the refurbished Ashmolean Museum into the narrow cobbled passageways of Oxford's old town in 2009.

The Photographers' Gallery has kept faith in its location, however tricky and inhospitable their new plot on the vaguely insalubrious Ramilies Street might seem. Indeed, the new site maintains the gallery's roots in Soho (just) and will hopefully come to be as embedded here as it was in its former location on Great Newport Street, which, despite its inelegant, warren-like unsuitability for showing great photography, will also live long in the memory. Which brings us tothe Photographers' Gallery's new iteration as a splendid showcase of… what, exactly? Photography has changed and reinvented itself almost as often as the regular exhibition programme at this institution over the past 30 years, but the first shows of a new era look to cover mostly familiar territory.

Headlining is Edward Burtynsky's undoubtedly majestic if portentous series, 'OIL' (capitalised in case you didn't get the epic gravitas), slimmed down from 100 prints in total to around 30 images here. The search for the sticky stuff is depicted in wide shots of Californian scrubland being relentlessly dredged by mechanical, pumping arms and lakes of black gold pooling hazardously on the Alberta tar sands in Canada. Once it surfaces, Burtynsky finds, oil either blights or gives light and heat - often simultaneously in the plumes of billowing smoke that mingle with the equally doomy clouds above.

The oil - sorry 'OIL' - is then refined through a crazy-straw panoply of pipes leading everywhere and nowhere, Burtynsky clearly feeling the need to pack his frames chock-full of detail and incident. This gives us as viewers plenty to chew on visually, but little room to think for ourselves. He also squeezes humanity out of the picture, suggesting that we've lost control over the beast we've created - that the deus might actually be in the machina, after all.

Fittingly then, it's the technical capabilities of the camera that seem to do all the work on behalf of Burtynsky - soul-searching extrapolation or empathetic interpretation is not required. Man does make brief appearances, to lust over Nascar meets in Talladega or manually junk enormous oil tankers in Bangladesh, but people are always peripheral, perhaps even detached from the shitheaps of tyre pyres and decommissioned warplanes that we've all unwittingly helped create with our collectively oil-stained hands.

Guilt turns to horror for the postscript, in three intense aerial views of the 2010 oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, one of which includes the improbably beautiful arc of an oily rainbow rising from a burning drilling platform. At least in these occasionally seductive, awe-inspiring landscapes, Burtynsky's moral browbeating falters and the needle shifts slightly on the good/evil gauge.

Subsidiary exhibitions - a screen-wall of computer-animated Gifs by artists in the foyer and a shifting photographic mirage by the oft-brilliant Raqs Media Collective - begins to turn thoughts away from photography's FAQs (frequently-asked questions, such as 'What is documentary nowadays?') towards some more interesting RAQs (rarely-asked questions, including 'What is the place of moving images in such an institution?').

The Photographers' Gallery is not alone in facing these issues; indeed it is no longer the only place showing photography in depth, as it was for many years. Competition comes from Tate Britain, to give just one example, and its promising summer show of photography's international great-and-the-good coming to take pictures of our capital, 'Another London', which is perhaps the kind of major, curated exhibition that the Photographers' Gallery should have mounted for its grand reopening. Still, it's great that it's back and who gives a stuff what the building looks like from the outside. I just hope there won't be any compromises on the inside.