Just opposite the Royal Academy, Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet emerges from a striking display case. The former prime minister is there to welcome visitors to the Center for British Photography, an intriguing new art space that has just opened on Jermyn Street alongside quintessentially British brands like Paxton & Whitfield (cheese) and Hawes & Curtis ( suits).

    Opposite the foam creation by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, another exhibit shows Thatcher joined by members of his cabinet, also as a Spitting Image puppet, this time captured through the lens of photographers Andrew Bruce and Anna Fox .

    They are there because the puppets, and more importantly the photographs, are part of James and Claire Hyman’s collection. For several years, the couple have regularly accumulated a large collection of British photographs – James, the director of the centre, is also a British art dealer, specializing in photography.

    Northern UK

    / John Bulmer Archive

    The couple have been sharing their private funds for some time, online at britishphotography.org and by loaning work to exhibitions across the UK. But now they’ve created a permanent space with free entry, right in the heart of London, to do just that – and more.

    There are wonderful things here. From clusters of photographs by important but underappreciated photographers like Joy Gregory and Maxine Walker, tackling race and place, to artists who are new to me, like Paloma Tendero, who draws “veins” on her naked body at the using a red string, in a cumulative sequence of images. There are also pieces from Fast Forward’s project in collaboration with Rainbow Sisters – refugee women who identify as LGBTQ – in which they used photography as a storytelling tool.

    James Hyman is keen to point out that while the center focuses on photography in Britain, “it is not a nationalist view of British photography”. While you can visit and “get the greatest hits”, from Bill Brandt to Martin Parr (both presented in a stunning display, The English at Home), the story he wants to tell is more complex.

    “You can almost trace the change in the nation through his photography, from a very white, very masculine story to something much more diverse. There are a lot of stories to tell now.

    James and Claire Hyman

    / Yan Morvan

    When I talk to James, as he, Claire and their team put the finishing touches on the space, he is keen to emphasize that the collection is only part of the story. “We actually want it to be a platform for other people to put on shows, maybe shows that take place in areas that wouldn’t otherwise happen in London, or maybe bring in some outside curators and give them a platform,” he says.

    Cross the threshold of the gallery and this idea is clearly already in action with Headstrong: Women and Empowerment. It is organized by Fast Forward, a research project led by Anna Fox, which promotes women in photography and presents different forms of self-portraiture.

    A group of ‘In Focus’ exhibitions on the first floor of the center reflect the commitment to a wide range of voices and forms of contemporary photography. It’s fantastic to see a significant body of work by Jo Spence, the feminist photographer, around her thesis written as a mature student in 1982, which was about the Cinderella mythos. Here, Spence uses photography alongside text and collage, as an essential tool for reflecting on gender and class stereotypes, in a Britain swept away by the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.


    / Hayley Morris Cafeiro

    Nearby is a project by Heather Agyepong, where she explores the history of the cakewalk dance, its connection to enslaved peoples and how they used it as a form of resistance. Agyepong reimagines the often offensive postcards of dancers distributed in Europe during the cakewalk craze of the early 1900s, with herself as the performer.

    You couldn’t imagine a more different project from Agyepong than Natasha Caruana’s Fairytale for Sale, in which she scoured the internet for hundreds of images of wedding dresses being sold, with the brides’ features cropped or obscured, often roughly. Images intended to evoke romantic love become tainted and scarred; at best a document of a commercial transaction, at worst an emblem of broken lives.

    Photography is hardly uncommon in London institutions – the Photographers’ Gallery is up the street in Soho, the V&A has one of the largest collections of the medium in the world, and the Tate, after decades in the ignore, now has funds to be reckoned with.

    David Hockney

    / Bill Brandt

    Hyman rightly says that the British accent makes him distinctive in the field. But, as the center’s deputy director, Tracey Marshall-Grant, suggests, there’s a growing “collaborative nature” between photographic institutions.

    “It all works together in a unified way,” she says, “with more access to photography, more opportunities and platforms for photographers, and more ways people experience photography as an art form. We don’t necessarily try to fill in gaps that other people don’t. [filling]. It’s more coherent: doing things in a better, bigger and more impactful way.

    The Center for British Photography opens on Thursday 26 January; britishphotography.org

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