News: Open Eye Gallery opens

Kenn Taylor discovers the visual stimulus of Liverpool’s re-launched photography gallery

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On 5 November, Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery officially opened its new home in a striking building on the city’s waterfront. The North West’s only dedicated photography gallery, and one of the UK’s most important, it has come a long way from its humble beginnings over 30 years ago.

The gallery’s history goes back to 1973 and an organisation called the Merseyside Visual Communications Unit (MVCU). In its early days, MVCU was a heady mix of art and activism, a DIY operation run on a shoestring by artists, volunteers and a tiny staff team. Open Eye’s director Patrick Henry says of those days: “It had a mission to do with media education, activism, and community arts, making facilities and equipment available at affordable rates – making it possible to produce culture in a democratic way and also to present the kind of culture that, at the time, you couldn’t necessarily find in the official venues.”

In 1976, MVCU moved into an abandoned pub, the Grapes Hotel in Whitechapel, central Liverpool. The Open Eye Gallery itself was created a year later, occupying what had been the public bar. It was one of the pioneering galleries of that period, fuelled by a growing sense of photography’s artistic, social and political potential.

“It was part of a network that was growing through the 1970s and the 1980s of independent photography gallery spaces around the UK,” says Henry. “It showed photographers like John Davies, Paul Graham, Tom Wood and Martin Parr, who were increasingly confident and assertive about the voice they wanted to have as artists, though they were for the most part excluded from the gallery scene and museum collections in this country.”

Fuelled by a desire to expand its exhibition spaces and increase and diversify its visitors, in mid-2009 Open Eye entered the main phase of its relocation project. This culminated in the grand opening this month, with the gallery now part of the wider Mann Island development. In the new space, the main ground floor gallery will showcase an international programme of contemporary photography. A mezzanine space will display exhibitions drawn from Open Eye’s archive of over 1,600 photographs. The gallery’s exterior wall will be also be used for a series of large-scale vinyl commissions under the title Wall Work.

Open Eye’s launch programme reflects both its past and present. Its main exhibition will be Mitch Epstein’s first solo show in the UK, American Power, which examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape, questioning the power of nature, government and corporations. The archive show will be Chris Steele-Perkins’ The Pleasure Principle, a searching photographic portrait of England in the 1980s.

Henry is keen on the contrasts between the two exhibitions. “Steel-Perkins’ project is about the 1980s in Britain. It’s more photojournalistic, social commentary, whereas Mitch’s project is more art documentary, kind of contemporary photography on a grand scale.”

Open Eye has changed with the times, as photography itself has changed, becoming more accepted as a fine art medium. At the same time, contemporary arts spaces have also become a more accepted part of the landscape of English cities. The gallery’s new space is surely one of the last of its kind to be built in the UK for a long time, but is Open Eye in danger of losing its edge in its new, tourist-friendly home?

“Historically, there has been a real edge to what Open Eye has exhibited, and we really want to retain that,” adds Henry. “So we want to be popular and widen our audiences, but the key challenge, and something that’s not negotiable about what we do, is to be both popular and also be critical and provocative. Which is something that I think resonates well with Liverpool as a city.”

Open Eye Gallery, 19 Mann Island, Liverpool Waterfront. See

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