Written by Nick Carvell
Ben Burdett is the founder of one of the most influential photographic galleries in London - Atlas Gallery in Marylebone. In anticipation of the launch of his latest exhibition with Franco Fontana, we sat down with him at his country home to discuss everything from his punk past and favourite photographs, to his vision for the gallery.
Ben Burdett's love of shutter-captured imagery only really started to develop in his mid-twenties. Having grown up in the Lake District, he spent his young adulthood roaming around the world and taking photos of the places he saw. After a brief period living in Australia in the late 1980s, he returned to the UK and, upon deciding he needed to get a job quickly to pay the bills, started working in an antiquarian bookshop.
“They had these huge great albums of early nineteenth-century views of the Holy Land and India,” Burdett says when I speak to him at his family home in Suffolk. “I got really interested in early travellers photographing the world for the first time - things that had never been photographed.”
As he became more interested in the medium, Burdett took note that - while the occasional photographic auction took place at the large auction houses like Sotheby’s - there were very few galleries dedicated to photographic art. He started to formulate a plan to open a gallery of his own in the capital that would showcase both contemporary and historic photography.
“I knew I wanted to have my own business, to make my own decisions and investigate things that interested me,” says Burdett. “I went from being unambitious and not really caring about having a career to the exact opposite - I wanted to do something.
In 1994, at the age of 32, he opened the doors to Atlas Gallery - and almost thirty years later, it’s still going strong. As he prepares to open his latest exhibition (a glorious exploration of Italian photographer Franco Fontana’s work), I spoke to Burdett about his changing mission for the gallery, the artists he’s been honoured to work with and how his punk past still makes its way into his wardrobe.
You say you started Atlas because you wanted to do something. What do you mean by that?
Well, at the start I wanted to be known as a pillar of the photography trade, initially in the UK and then quickly I set my sights on becoming known internationally. I went from being not very ambitious to being quite visionary about it. I saw it as something I really wanted to communicate and educate people about. Today, photography’s still an exotic and misunderstood area of the art business. That appealed to me - undoing the esoteric nature of the artform.
Has your mission changed with Atlas over the years?
Very definitely. What I’m more interested in for the gallery now is photography that has relevance - work that has some kind of way of communicating important ideas. There’s a whole school of landscape photography now that’s heavily linked to the health of the planet, for example. Most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has made me really realise that photography can play a crucial role in supporting causes and giving voices to groups of people in society who have historically struggled to be heard.
What attracts you to a photograph?
I can’t remember the precise statistic, but I once heard that due to the fact that people have to process so many photographic images a day, the average time someone's eyes dwell on a single image in, say, a magazine is around .1 of a second. To my mind, an important photograph (and it could be important for the wrong reasons, such as being faked) is one that makes someone stop and linger. That’s the most important thing.
Which photographer’s work would you recommend we go and look up immediately?
Despite the majority of his work being from the 1960s and 1970s, I would say Steve Shapiro. Steve’s photographs are the most powerful comment on what was going on then, but you can apply everything he photographed then to today - scarily the issues are very similar. His best known book is Shapiro’s Heroes. While he was primarily an American civil rights photographer and photojournalist, the cool thing about him was that he also worked with David Bowie, documented a Christmas with JFK, photographed the making of The Godfather - he had the most incredible career of any photographer I know.
What’s your personal style like?
At home, and especially over the past year, I have hardly dressed up to go to work. However, I do love getting dressed for an occasion. I love a navy suit and I’m a sucker for a shirt and tie, cufflinks and shiny shoes. Basically, I’m either super smart or I’m at the other extreme in gardening clothes.
What is a great marker of style in another person, for you?
Shoes are really important. Crap shoes make everything look crap.
What’s the most prized possession in your wardrobe?
I have a 1960s Omega Moonphase with a stainless steel bracelet that I absolutely love and had wanted for a very long time. We put on a show for the fortieth anniversary of the moon landings a few years ago and it was sponsored by Omega, so I was lucky enough to buy one during that exhibition. It was also sponsored by Hasselbad, who made all the cameras for the astronauts, but sadly I didn’t manage to get my hands on one of those too!
What is British style to you?
I don’t think you need to look much further than James Bond. Those films sum it up, for me. Connery in Goldfinger especially - that classic era in the Sixties and Seventies. The tweed particularly, I love. I think most men would be lying if they didn’t say they had some sort of style influence from those films, especially men of my age.
What else influences your personal style?
I spent most of my teens having a fairly anti-establishment approach to life and dressing. The whole punk era was so exciting for me - it’s a scene I’ve always felt close to. I still wear Doc Martens and I’ve even got a couple of Clash T-shirts from back then. I’d say the layover I have from those days is that I tend to wear dark colours, black jeans, dark blue shirts etc. In my opinion you can’t go wrong with a suit with a cool punk band T-shirt.