Proud Gallery London

As Proud Camden shuts up shop, Dan Carrier talks to gallery owner Alex Proud about how he made photography hip.

Proud Gallery London

The gallery was on The Strand and focused on Japanese prints. But due to its specialised nature and stormy economic conditions, art lovers were not exactly beating down the door.

It was the early 1990s. Proprietor Alex Proud had recently left university and was doing an apprenticeship with an art dealer. As he waited for visitors to pop in, a random conversation was to change his business – and the world of London photography – for ever.

“I opened Proud Central in 1994,” he recalls. “It had been a stamp shop. I got it for about half a penny from British Rail – it was during the recession. But it was a disaster. London was at a standstill.

“My colleague Isabelle was the wife of the photographer Dennis Morris, who had shot the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley. She said to me: why not do photography shows?”

It was, Alex says, a “eureka” moment.

“We featured images of the Sex Pistols, and in one week I got more press coverage then I had had in a lifetime,” he says. “It dawned on me that I had found something no one else was doing and this concept of rock and roll photography opened up.”

Alex went on to establish galleries across London, including Proud Camden. First found in a warehouse in Greenland Road, it moved 17 years ago to the Horse Hospital in the Stables Market and became both a gallery, restaurant and club.

Earlier this month, it was announced Proud Camden was closing – despite Alex offering owners Lab Tech a reported £1m a year in rent. But while Alex is now known by many as a nightclub impresario, he is first and foremost an art curator and gallery owner whose work in the 1990s reinvigorated the idea of photography as an arts medium by drawing on popular culture for its subject matter.

“There were 100 great photographers from the 1950s onwards that no one remembered existed,” he says.

The likes of Duffy, who shot David Bowie, and Terry O’Neill, whose portraits include many of Hollywood greats, were seriously under-represented when it came to shows. This niche in the market opened up for Alex.

“There were these incredible photographers and none of them were having exhibitions,” he recalls.

“With Morris, 5,000 people came to see us in one month – I’d had about 500 in two years before then.”

He met Mick Rock – known as “the man who shot the Seventies”, with a back catalogue that ranged from Blondie to Iggy Pop and The Rocky Horror Show through to Queen – and realised his work was ripe for a revival. “No one was talking to him. He was a relic from the 1970s, forgotten – so I met him in a pub and he told me incredible stories,” he adds. “He was a legend who nobody knew.”

It changed the landscape of pop photography – and vitally big firms had high sponsorship budgets and wanted to be associated with them.

“They wanted to spend on cultural events, so that opened the door to do original exhibitions,” he remembers. “You could sell these ideas to firms like Orange, Jaguar. It meant you could do fun, exciting exhibitions.”

But he says the changing nature of how content is bought and sold has wrecked the market for the creative industries.

“That pipeline stopped because greedy corporations take ownership of the photographers’ copyright. Photographers cannot make a living any more,” he says. “It was unique and will never happen again.”

And Alex’s idea of sourcing photographers from the world of rock and roll has been grasped by big institutions.

“You now have Bowie at the V&A. People used to be snobs about it before we showed it worked,” he says.

Alex grew up in Brighton. His father was a stamp collector, historian and author of more than 60 books.

“I collected Penny Reds as a kid,” says Alex. “I grew up in a political household. We had the Encyclopedia Britannica on our kitchen table and we’d spend hours discussing the world. We were brought up to be liberals – and to question everything.”

Passionate about politics, he studied the subject at York and in 1990s worked for Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.

Proud Camden, he says, tapped in to the area’s rock and roll culture.

“I realised there was a Generation X who understood and appreciated the multi-faceted idea of what culture means – that it isn’t just opera or classical music or figurative or abstract art,” he says.

“We gave them something they recognised, a culture they owned, and it resonated enormously with them.”

But photography today worries him. “The money to pay picture editors and photographers has completely disappeared,” he says. “Magazines and newspapers are not doing well and you simply cannot make a living selling pictures.”

He claims social media firms who are not considered publishers or pay for content are one of the causes for this decimation of photographers’ income. “It is so popular, but a lack of protection over image rights means the great artistic photographers are struggling,” he says. “It is doing badly for the same reasons as other arts are – everyone thinks it should all be free.

“It means there will be fewer artists. It is the same with live music. We are destroying the eco-systems that create it.”

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