Photographer, journalist and curator Gareth Gardner has found running his own gallery space a learning process which might even help him to confront his obsessive controlling tendencies.

My name is Gareth Gardner and I’m a control freak. It’s one of the reasons why working as an architectural photographer is so gratifying. The painstaking amount of time spent cleaning and dusting, the precise placement of objects within a frame, the meticulous planning of a shoot to ensure that sunlight is at a perfect angle, these all add up to someone who likes to exercise absolute power over their realm. 

Installation shot of the Wide Angle exhibition at Gareth Gardner Gallery. Photography: Gareth Gardner

If only I could live like this. But such perfection is not compatible with pet ownership.

These OCD actions aren’t just about creating striking pictures, but also to ensure that the photographs tell a specific story. Interrogating the narrative of a project, and giving the images a point of view, is always rewarding. For a workplace interior, this might explain how innovative ways of working are supported by the spatial design. For a medical project, it could be to highlight the features that deliver good health outcomes. And in museum and gallery projects, the images might tell the story of the curatorial approach to a scheme. 

It barely ever occurs to me that people might interpret the images in a way that’s different to what I intended.

Over the last couple of years, this career as a professional absolutist and authoritarian despot has been challenged by my new side-hustle as a curator. In 2019 I opened up an eponymous gallery space in Deptford, SE London, dedicated to showing photography of architecture and the altered landscape. Despite the vagaries of lockdown, it has been an incredibly enjoyable and inspiring experience.
I guess I had hoped that programming and curating exhibitions would be yet another opportunity to exert a dictatorial grip on how visitors view architecture and the stories that the photographs tell. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Our latest exhibition is a case in point. We are showing a series of images by Chris Matthews, a photographer/historian/graphic designer based in Nottingham. He had the commission of a lifetime to photograph more than 300 buildings around Britain for the new book ‘Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer’ by renowned architectural critic Owen Hatherley. 

The Dorman Long tower, which was controversially demolished in 2021. Photography: Chris Matthews

Discussions about hosting an exhibition of images from the book had been progressing ever since Chris first began the project for Penguin in late 2019. While the intention was never just to put on an Instagram-friendly showcase of fashionable Brutalism, our original curatorial approach was certainly more literal that our eventual direction. Changing circumstances meant that the exhibition’s narrative changed in unanticipated ways.

Ensuring that the choice of images in the show – we ended up with just 18 from a possible 10,000 photos – was geographically representative, or showed the buildings considered most architecturally significant, morphed into a more open-ended process.

Partly this was because the project to photograph more than 300 buildings around the UK took a dramatic turn several weeks after Chris first set out in his Fiat Panda to begin work. The first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, with a huge impact on how he carried out the project. ‘When restrictions began to be eased, it was like playing within a dystopian computer game, where I had to travel the entire country on a mission without interacting with any people,’ Chris explains. 

The forlorn shell of Coleg Harlech in North Wales. Photography: Chris Matthews

More than just a logistical challenge, Covid-19 impressed itself on the images. Clifton Cathedral’s original Robin Day chairs are festooned with hazard tape to impose social distancing on the congregation. Elevated concrete highway viaducts in Halifax are eerily devoid of traffic. ‘The lack of people and traffic meant unobstructed views of buildings were possible.’

The fate of some of the buildings was also being determined during the project, which lends some of the images an additional poignancy. An uncertain future facing many iconic modernist structures became an increasingly important strand in the exhibition. The pro-brutalist Dorman Long tower in Teeside is a prime example. It was shockingly demolished under cover of darkness in September 2021, after its Grade II listing was unexpectedly revoked. ‘I felt numb that it was demolished but I wasn’t surprised,’ recalls Chris. Having photographs of the unique structure allows it to live on and inspire people, he adds.

The interior of Clifton Cathedral, with seats taped off for social distancing. Photography: Chris Matthews

Most fascinating of all has been interacting with visitors to the gallery, finding out what messages they take from seeing the photographs. As soon as we opened the doors, I realised that the images had taken on a life of their own, beyond anything intended. Conversations about politics, arguments about social housing, heated debates about the future of seaside towns, discussions on how to save our high streets. These themes and so many more have emerged. 

Some visitors simply enjoy the compositions and forms, while others engage on a more profound level and see the images as totemic, giving an insight into our changing society and values. Some simply hate the buildings featured in the images, and can’t understand why anybody would photograph them, while others enjoy seeing photographs that spark memories of family holidays, past homes or places where they have worked.

What’s clear is that whatever we intended the images to show, people will always make their own interpretation. And I need to celebrate it as something that is beyond my control. 

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