How Sue Davies changed the UK’s photography scene

Sue Davies, the founder of the Photographers’ Gallery in London, passed away last month. Here, Diane Smyth looks back at her life and the way the gallery has changed the way the UK thinks about the medium

In 2021, The Photographers’ Gallery celebrates its 50th birthday. Now firmly established as the UK’s premier institution for photography, it started life as a rather more bohemian enterprise founded by an extraordinary woman – Sue Davies, who died on 18 April 2020.

Born Susan Adey in 1933, Davies grew up in Iran, New York and Kent, before marrying jazz musician John Davies in 1954 and having three children. In 1968 she got a job at the Institute of Contemporary Art, working as exhibitions secretary to Roland Penrose, the co-founder of the ICA and husband of photographer and Surrealist model Lee Miller. Davies was tasked with organising two photography exhibitions for spring 1969 – one titled Women, and the other Spectrum. The latter featured work by Don McCullin, Enzo Ragazzini, Dorothy Bohm and Tony Ray-Jones and the shows were such popular successes that Davies suggested the ICA hold more photography exhibitions. She was flatly turned down by the organisation.

Undeterred she decided to go it alone, checking out jazz venues and bookshops around central London with her husband, and finding a former Lyon’s tearoom at 8 Great Newport Street. She opened The Photographers’ Gallery on 14 January 1971. The gallery was set up as a charity rather than a private commercial gallery, with the Davies’ mortgaging their own home to open it; it was the first public gallery devoted to the medium in the UK, and Sue Davies was taking a huge risk.

Top: Sue Davies at the gallery; Above: Opening speech by Tom Hopkinson at the gallery in 1971, with Davies looking on. © The Photographers’ Gallery Archive
Gallery exterior on its opening night in 1971; © Dorothy Bohm; courtesy the Photographers’ Gallery Archive