British photographic history

Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history

Obituary: Sue Davies OBE HonFRPS (14 April 1933-18 April 2020) - UPDATED 2

Sue Davies who has died, after a short illness, aged 87 years, was the founder director of London’s The Photographers’ Gallery, the first public space dedicated solely to photography and photographers in the United Kingdom. During her twenty years as gallery director she established it as the go-to place for photography, particularly in its early years when photography was largely ignored by the UK’s arts establishment and there were no other galleries of photography. The Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions were diverse, ranging from historical photography, the work of contemporary photographers, and themed shows, often with an international perspective.  They were supported by an eclectic talks programme and a bookshop that was the best for photography anywhere in the country.

Susan Elizabeth Davies (née Adey) was born in 1933 and had a childhood that ranged from London, Iran and New York. She attended secondary school in London. She married John R T Davies (1927-2004) the jazz musician, recording artist, producer  and sound restorer in 1954 and they had three children, Joanna, Stephanie  and Jessica. Davies worked at various magazines including the Municipal Journal  and then had a part-time job at the Artists Placement Group in London before taking a job at the ICA.

Davies joined the ICA in 1968 as exhibitions secretary. It was at the ICA where she met Bill Jay who was using it as a venue for his Photo Study Centre which held regular photography talks. The Spectrum exhibition which ran at the ICA from 3 April-11 May 1969 was a landmark event for photography in Britain examining the role of photography, 500 women photographers and showcasing individual photographers including Tony Ray-Jones, Enzo Ragazzini, Dorothy Bohm and Don McCullin.

This activity awakened her passion for photography, and a determination that the absence of a proper place for photography in Britain needed addressing. By 1970 she was planning a gallery dedicated to photography. With the agreement of her family she re-mortgaged her home and gained the backing  of people such as Tom Hopkinson and Magnum agency photographers such as David Hurn. Jay’s Do Not Bend Gallery opened in 1970 and Davies was generous to acknowledge his influence and gallery as a first, although its brief extended beyond photography to the wider arts.

The Photographers’ Gallery opened on 14 January 1971. It aimed to provide a central London showcase for exhibitions of the best photography, to create a centre for the sale of photographic prints, and to offer a selection of photographic books, catalogues and magazines. It was also to act as an exchange house for exhibitions touring the continent and to initiate touring collections. The first exhibition was The Concerned Photographer curated by Cornell Capa. Following this was a show of Edward Weston’s photography, and thematic shows around industry, fashion and landscape, as well as young photographers.  As Martin Parr HonFRPS has recently commented: ‘to find a place that loved photography, it was absolutely exhilarating to go in there’.

The Gallery was set up as a charity, relaying on grant-aid and private benefactors. Hopkinson was the first chair of trustees and it was supported by an impressive roster of individuals, photographers, companies, and volunteers who made it all happen.  The premises at 8 Great Newport Street provided 3500sq.ft. of space to exhibit photography and for photographers and the public to meet and to listen to speakers. In 1980 the gallery expanded into No. 5 Great Newport Street and the freehold was purchased.

In 1972 the New York Times writing about London’s photography scene said: ‘In London's Photographer's Gallery, however, almost everything photographic is welcomed, including the kind of reportage whose only claim to attention is the interest of its subject matter...The Photographers' Gallery remains the only place in London that shows new photography regularly, and consequently, it has become a kind of catch‐all. ..And where else was it to go?

Davies’ work for photography was recognised with the Royal Photographic Society’s Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 1982 and she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in 1988.

Davies was encouraged to step down as director in 1991. The British Journal of Photography suggested that the decision was, in part, based on the continual need to find funding to keep the gallery afloat. Even in 1972 Davies had said ‘we suffer from a chronic lack of money’ and this was always a challenge.  Her replacement’s first job was to deal with a dire financial situation, due, in part, to changes in how London boroughs funded the Gallery.  The BJP’s assessment of her time at the Gallery was fulsome: ‘Davies deserves the highest praise for what she has achieved in raising the profile of photography in Britain, not just via the walls of Great Newport Street, but by 20 years of example set to the many similarly successful funded galleries around the country’.  Its programming may have been mixed but at its best, as the BJP noted, ‘it was brilliant’.  

After leaving the Gallery Davies continued to be involved in photography as a visiting lecturer and curator.

The roll call of those who worked at the Gallery or took part in its activities is a long one and there are just a few personal recollections below. There are many others with their own memories of Davies and the Gallery.

Zelda Cheatle, who worked at the Gallery’s Print Room in the 1980s said : ‘it’s hard to remember that there was no photography anywhere before Sue....  she really defined British photography; but her Eastern European exhibitions by Kertesz and Brassai, etc, and Giacomelli and Fontana, and O Winston Link and so many more were brought to a British audience’.

Chris Steele-Perkins, the Magnum photographer commented: ‘Sue was responsible for encouraging young photographers as well as bringing the work of greats, like Winston Link, André Kertész, and William Klein to a British audience. For my generation TPG was like a clubhouse and I owe lasting friendships and important contacts to Sue and the atmosphere she created around the gallery. Without TPG's notice board I would never have worked on Survival Programmes.

The curator India Dhargalkar who started her career at the Photographers Gallery under Davies said: ‘she was one of the most influential people in the early days of the photography art scene in the UK.  Under her direction it was a time of exciting and innovative exhibitions, opening the door to new photographers who have since become well established thanks to her support’.

Brett Rogers OBE, the current director of The Photographers Gallery, said: ‘Sue’s vision for the Gallery was rooted in a spirit of collaboration. From the outset, she gathered a group of like-minded people to work with her to ensure that TPG was first and foremost a place for photographers to exhibit, share, meet and sell their work. Equally she wanted to offer an environment to inspire, educate and inform audiences about the pivotal - and unique - role photography plays in our lives and communities.’

It can be hard, with a 2020 perspective, when photography exhibitions attract record crowds, receive massive media coverage and photography permeates our real and virtual worlds, to imagine how poorly it was seen in the late 1960s. That Davies was able to achieve so much for the public benefit, and for British photography, supported by others, is a testimony to her vision and perseverance.

It is poignant and sad that next year’s celebrations of The Photographers’ Gallery’s half century will now be held without her presence.  Her legacy is the Photographers’ Gallery and, even more importantly, the vibrant gallery scene and respect for photography that she helped to establish and define.

© Michael Pritchard

 

With thanks to Roxanne Maguire,  Zelda Cheatle, Chris Steele-Perkins, and India Dhargalkar.

Images: Chris Steele-Perkins HonFRPS, Sue Davies, 1982 (centre), Mayotte Magnus-Lewinska FRPS (top left); montage courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.

UPDATE - 2

Read more here: 

The Guardian obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/30/sue-davies-obi...

Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_Davies

BBC Radio 4's Last Word: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p08c0h6g 

Views: 1915

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of British photographic history to add comments!

Join British photographic history

Comment by Pamela Glasson Roberts on April 23, 2020 at 0:39

A lovely biography Michael.  I didn't know Sue well but whenever I was in London during my RPS years in Bath (1982-2001), I would always go into TPG to see & also lend RPS prints to TPG exhibitions & see Zelda & India & sometimes I saw & talked with Sue.  She told me I always looked like a student!  Wish that was still true!

She created something that hadn't been thought relevant in the UK before, planted a seed that blossomed big time.

I think we owe her everything.

Comment by James McArdle on April 22, 2020 at 3:07

In honour of a major force in photography I've started a Wikipedia biography of Sue Davies at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_Davies if others would like to add detail.

© 2021   Created by Michael Pritchard.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service