Interview with The Photography Room founder Sean Davey

With the recent opening of The Photography Room at the Old Bus Depot Markets in Kingston, we caught up with photographer, PhotoAccess tutor and The Photography Room founder and Gallery Director Sean Davey to talk about this exciting new space.

01The Photography Room Main Gallery, March 2016

Can you tell us about The Photography Room, and what inspired you to open a commercial gallery at the Old Bus Depot Markets?

The Photography Room (TPR) is a gallery that represents selected photographers, most of whom are based in the ACT but also a few from Sydney and overseas (Germany, France and the USA). TPR was founded in 2011, when I opened my first gallery in Queanbeyan. I asked some friends if they wanted to have their work shown in the gallery and on the website, and it just went from there. We had the Queanbeyan space for a bit over a year. Between 2012 and 2015 TPR didn’t have a physical space, so the emphasis was on the website and TPR curated exhibitions at other galleries in Canberra (ANU School of Art Photospace Gallery, Kaori Gallery and the Huw Davies Gallery at PhotoAccess).

In 2015 I approached the Old Bus Depot Markets with a proposal to have a stall there to show my own work. It was a modest idea to sell some prints and books. My application was approved, but then I was also told about a permanent space that had recently been vacated by local photographer Col Ellis (who had rented the space for over 10 years). I hadn’t been looking to open a permanent gallery for TPR, but the space was presented to me and I guess, like always, I got excited with the potential that I saw there. The only problem was money, how was the renovation (that was badly needed) and the rent going to be paid? We needed to work out a way for the venture to be equitable, Canberra is a notoriously difficult place for commercial galleries to survive. Only recently did art critic and historian Sascha Grishin write a piece for The Canberra Times highlighting the demise of the commercial gallery scene in this city.

I approached photographers already associated with TPR and outlined my idea for the gallery. The initial response was varied but I got enough support to then spend time researching and writing a business plan for how the gallery could survive without relying solely on sales of works. The idea was to form a co-operative (in spirit) and spread the cost amongst the interested photographers. Once that was all sorted out, and people agreed, we got to work renovating and fitting out the space.

Opening at the Old Bus Depot Markets did require some consideration, but at the end of the day the volume of people who patron the markets on Sundays was what clinched it. On our first day of trading we had over 200 people visit the gallery, and that number has been consistent each week. Some of the visitors are buying photographs from TPR as well, which is great. While TPR is indeed a commercial gallery, the main aim is to exhibit and promote the work of our artists, as it always has been. The commercial art world can be a fickle place and not everyone who visits TPR has the ability or desire to spend money on a photographic print (our prices range from $150-$5,000), so our focus is on showcasing the work and helping artists develop their professional skills and practices. Of course selling works is great, but I am aware that more people will look than will buy.

02.12jpg02.13TPR Main Gallery before renovations; Sean Davey with friend (and renovator) James Webster in the renovated TPR Main Gallery

How do you go about selecting the photographers and their works to feature in the TPR Solo Exhibition Gallery and Main Gallery?

TPR only shows work by artists who are represented by TPR. On occasion I will meet a photographer/artist whose work or practice I find interesting and inspiring, and I will ask if they are interested in joining TPR, but that doesn’t happen often. There are a lot of great photographers out there, and every week at least a few of the people who visit the gallery will ask how they can get their work shown at TPR. It’s not that I have any elitist agenda, it’s more a case that I run the gallery by myself, which includes curating and hanging the shows in both galleries, doing the administration, marketing and PR, as well as maintaining the website. There are only so many hours in the day…

03Paul Jurak’s artist talk, for his TPR exhibition The Lake, April 2016

How frequently do you change over exhibitions, and can you tell us about your upcoming shows?

TPR has only been open at the Old Bus Depot Markets for two months now, and I am still ironing out the management of shows and how often things will change. Generally speaking, the Solo Exhibition Gallery will change every two to three weeks and the Main Gallery, which is a salon hang featuring works by all TPR artists, will change sporadically. When a piece sells, the buyer has the option to take it there and then, so works can revolve at different times. In the coming months TPR will present solo exhibitions by Dörte Conroy, Michael Masters and Dawne Fahey, and I am excited to be working on a major exhibition of work by French photographer Thomas Boivin which will take place in October.

06The feature wall in TPR’s Main Gallery showcases a mix of works

TPR focuses on personal documentary practice. Why? 

I like social documentary photography and personally driven work. I guess that’s just the work that speaks most to me. We are all different in our tastes, but mine is firmly set within this genre of photography. TPR represents photographers who do landscapes and more abstract works too, which I also really love. I’m interested in photographers who are personally engaged with their subject, and who develop their own narrative over time. Mark Mohell, for example, works in the street but has recently moved into studio portraiture and still life. I embrace this type of personal exploration and will always support the work the artists make, that’s what TPR is here for.

04The first show in TPR’s Solo Exhibition Gallery, Robert Frank’s Books & Films 1947-2016, presented in conjunction with Steidl

Congratulations on receiving the Highly Commended Award at the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize this year. What an achievement! Can you tell us about your winning work?

Thank you, that’s very kind to say. It was very unexpected, that’s for sure. I have entered a number of times, but never before have had work selected. The National Photographic Portrait Prize is one of the more prestigious prize exhibitions in Australia and it’s a great honour to have a work exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. In all honesty, any on the finalists could have taken out the top award or the Highly Commended. On the opening night I remember walking around the exhibition thinking to myself that many of the other portraits were much more accomplished than mine. But I also really like my work, especially the scale of it, and the fact it is a fibre-based silver gelatin print. I also really like the way it is presented, floating in the frame, which emphasises the nature of the paper that the image is printed on. It’s funny, I only shot the picture, but the final work is really a collaboration between Asha, the subject of the picture, Chris, the printer and Michael, the framer. There are four people who made this work possible and I get to take all of the credit!

Other than TPR, what are you working on at the moment?

TPR is taking up a lot of my time at the moment, but that is to be expected. Alongside TPR I work full time as a freelance photographer, as well as maintaining my own personal photography practice. I try to have some time away from photography, and that includes swimming and making sure I get to spend time with family and friends.

Sean copy

The Photography Room is open every Sunday from 10am-4pm, or by appointment.

Sean Davey will be tutoring our upcoming Winter Available Light and Fibre-based Black and White Darkroom weekend workshops at PhotoAccess.

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