This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
When Brett Rogers, the current Director of the Photographers’ Gallery, arrived at The Courtauld in 1980, photography was not a topic studied! Throughout her career, Rogers has played a key role in promoting this previously ignored medium, both in the UK and abroad. Born in Australia, Rogers completed a degree in Fine Arts before moving to London to start an MA course in European post-War art. She explored the history of surrealist exhibitions as a way to sidestep The Courtauld’s restrictive syllabus – though she couldn’t study photography in its own right, this choice of subject allowed her to research photographic archives extensively to study photographs of the exhibitions.
Photograph by Suki Dhanda, 2014, Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery
Graduating from The Courtauld, Rogers joined the British Council, soon moving into the role of Visual Arts Deputy Director and Head of Exhibitions. There she spent much of her time travelling and working on exhibitions of British art and photography abroad. In this, she often found herself in hot water, with British ambassadors not appreciating the image of Britain presented to the world by the photography of Martin Parr, among others. Rogers resisted these arguments and disputed the notion that photography should “promote a tourist’s image of Britain”, rather seeking to promote the medium itself.
In discussion of photography in comparison to the other arts, Rogers picks up on the ease of transporting works of photography. She references, in contrast, the troubles she had while working in Australia and attempting to bring Michael Craig Martin’s An Oak Tree into the country. This artwork consists of a glass of water suspended on a shelf above a text arguing that it is, in fact, an oak tree. When Rogers tried to import the work, Australian border authorities initially classed it as ‘vegetation’ and refused to allow it into the country. Rogers remembers how she and her colleagues had to explain that the work was one of conceptual art, rather than a living oak tree and that it didn’t need to be quarantined. Photography, she concludes, is much easier to transport and thus more suitable for communicating with a broader audience.
While still at the British Council, Rogers was appointed a trustee of the Photographers’ Gallery; becoming a member of the board from 1992-95 which would later choose her to be Director. She took on this new role in November 2005 and has been there since. Rogers led the gallery through a period of vast change, including a move from its previous location to its current site in Soho and the major redevelopment of these new premises, despite troubles following the economic crisis of 2008. She has brought the gallery into the era of the networked image, with a real exploration of digital artworks and a deep personal interest “in artists that are combining digital and analogue”.
Rogers has been central in the establishment of photography as a leading art in the UK, for which she received an OBE in 2014 – a lot has changed for the medium since her time at The Courtauld, much of it thanks to her.