Photographers' Gallery at Oxford Circus reopensWe welcome the gallery back, but it's not all good news
16-18 Ramillies Street, W1F 7LW.[map], 22nd May 2012
The Photographers' Gallery has always been a favourite port of call for me when I pop into town, and it was sorely missed during the long eighteen months it remained closed.
The reason for the extended closure was for a hefty refurbishment project, which saw major changes to the existing floors and an additional two floors being bolted on top of the old warehouse building.
The cafe now sits on the ground floor, with huge windows affording views of the back streets outside - and sweaty fellas working out in the 'Sweatbox Soho' gay gym opposite.
The building exterior has been completely transformed, with a large logo with an inverted 'L' looking to establish up a sufficient level of iconic branding.
Stepping inside the new Photographers' Gallery, you can see the cafe to the right, and the stairs to the print gallery and shop below.
The large video screen was showing off a reel of animated GIFs. I rather liked them although all those lights flickering on and off when I was having a coffee was a bit distracting.
The information desk looks more like a security check-in.
Heading downstairs to the shop.
Bring back the old cafe!
The cafe was clean, well-lit, tidy... and hugely disappointing.
One of the main reasons we'd regularly visit the old Photographers' Gallery was for the cafe run by Billy, who'd worked there for years on end and was always a welcoming face.
His wife made the delicious cakes, and the food was prepared by a really friendly bunch of workers, many of whom were artists and photographers, and they were always happy to chat to regular customers.
After Billy was unceremoniously excluded from the Gallery's plans, it's now turned into a super-slick and rather soulless operation run by Italian deli Lina Stores, with some fairly outrageous prices - £3.50 for a cake anyone?
It's not just the high prices that I'm not so keen on: the original Gallery had long bench seats that encouraged strangers to chat to each other, and there was photos and installations around the wall.
Looking around the new cafe, you'd be hard pressed to realise that you're in a photography gallery at all.
The old first floor has been converted into offices, so you have to trudge up another level to get to the first public space, which includes an educational study room and a space for lectures and talks.
There's also a camera obscura looking down to the street below, but - sigh - it only works one Saturday a month, so I imagine a lot of people will never get to see it in action.
Upwards into the third, forth and fifth floors and you can find some spacious galleries.
Some photography at last!
The top floors were devoted to Edward Burtynsky's Oil, a hugely enjoyable collection of large prints looking into mankind's relationship with the black stuff.
From the top floor, you can look out across Oxford Street and on to the pedestrianised space below.
The experience is rather spoiled however, by the fact that the glass is covered by a sheet of black gauze.
Looking down, with the red neon sign of Sweatbox Soho visible in the opposite building.
In the ground floor bookshop and store.
Overall, I'm glad the Photographers' Gallery is back, but I feel that it's undergone an unnecessary transition into becoming a 'destination art attraction.' Did it really have to become a bigger space?
The cafe has just about lost all its original charm and turned into something shiny, bland and expensive, while for all the extra floor space it doesn't really feel like we're getting much more actual photography on offer.
I'll still pay the place fairly regular visits because I'm mad keen on photography, but I fancy much of my interest is going to veer towards the smaller, more personable and less corporate photo galleries around town in the future.
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