Battered and bruised: A derelict fish and chip shop is now a thriving photography community in East London. Photo courtesy of Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling.
Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling are both successful photographers – Arthur became a Magnum Nominee in 2008, and Ebeling regularly works for The Guardian Weekend, Observer Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine and Le Monde. They’re a couple and, shortly after they started house-hunting, they were shown a former corner shop, with a flat upstairs and space downstairs. “It was just outside our price range but we said, ‘Imagine having a gallery space, wouldn’t that be great?’” says Arthur. “Once we’d thought of that, we couldn’t go back to the idea of just living in a flat, it seemed too exciting.”
Two years later, they are showing their first exhibition at Fishbar, a converted chip shop in London’s East End. They found the place in 2009, but it was in such a bad condition it took them 18 months to restore it, including removing a tree growing through the back of the building and replacing every ceiling, window and floor. The surveyors told them the roof was the only sound thing in the building; shortly after they moved in, it fell in. “It was a massive job; we didn’t realise how much we’d have to do,” says Arthur.
When Arthur and Ebeling bought the building, it had most recently been used as a Vietnamese restaurant but, when they removed the plastic sign above the door they found an older one, “Fish Bar”, and decided to keep the name. They removed fake wall coverings to find the chip shop’s original battered wooden interior, and decided to keep that – in future they may peel back the layers further. Arthur and Ebeling live upstairs with a housemate and rent out a studio flat in the building; between all four rents, they can just cover the gallery. They can also rent it out as a studio between shows and, because they aren’t going to show exhibitions back-to-back, say they will therefore be able to stay open for at least a year before they need to take stock of their accounts.
“If we had to rent [the space], we would have this obligation to make money every month, but here we can work it out and that gives us freedom,” says Arthur. “Philipp and I are still full-time photographers, we make our living out of our own photography; this is something we want to do because we enjoy it. We’re not tied down to having to make a profit every month, which I think would be pretty tough in Dalston. Nobody is going to walk past here, come in and buy a print.”
Fishbar will be selling prints – the first exhibition, a joint exhibition of work by father and son Richard and Pablo Bartholomew, has work for sale – but Arthur says they don’t expect to sell many and won’t be going to the art fairs that commercial galleries depend on. They haven’t applied for arts funding either. Arthur says they haven’t ruled it out for the future, but felt they needed to get experience first. With funding budgets under pressure and so many photographers trying to get money that way, they reasoned, two photographers who just fancied setting up a space didn’t stand much of a chance.
Instead Fishbar is a labour of love – so much so that Arthur and Ebeling finished the gallery before their flat. Organising the exhibitions takes time, effort and money, all of which they’re freely giving; the pay-off is that they can show what they want, when they want to. The first exhibition came about because Pablo Bartholomew is a friend; the second exhibition, which will open early next year, will show young Magnum photographers’ work, including Arthur’s. After that they’re thinking they’ll show another friend’s work “which we really love”, but nothing is set in stone.
“We hope we’ll show stuff other people aren’t, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Arthur. “It just has to be stuff we really believe in, because it’s a lot of work. It’s not just [a case of] filling the walls, because they don’t always have to be full. We’re not going to do loads of shows; we’ll do things as and when we find something interesting.
“We still don’t have a fixed idea of what it has to be, it was just having a space. London has few places to show photography relative to the number of photographers here. So having a place to do things feels very refreshing.”
Photo courtesy of Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling.
Even so, they have a business plan, and hope to run the gallery as a commercial concern in future. “I feel quite comfortable in saying I would like to make a profit because I believe in what we’re doing,” says Ebeling. “It’s not our main motivation, but we would like to be able to continue to do this.”
Mother of invention
Arthur and Ebeling curated the Bartholomews’ show themselves, putting the father and son’s work together for the first time (an approach Pablo has now adopted, after years of promoting them separately). They made the separation between the two bodies of work clear by dividing it into two halves, putting one in the front of the gallery and the other in the back room. Richard Bartholomew’s work is in the front in framed prints; Pablo’s images are in a salon-style mix, pasted directly on the wall as if part of the wallpaper.
“That was born out of a need to be imaginative because framing his father’s work was very expensive,” says Ebeling. “We felt we needed to show Richard’s work in a very classical way but then when it came to Pablo, we just didn’t have enough money to frame it too. We put it to Pablo and he said, ‘Sure – it’s a departure from what I usually do, but why not?’ We were very pleased with the working relationship.”
Bartholomew, for his part, says it was fun to show work at Fishbar, trying out new ideas rather than following a tried-and-tested format. He’s also enthusiastic about the publication Ebeling and Arthur put together for the show, printed onto (heavy) newspaper at The Guardian’s printing press. “That’s what I find good about his generation,” he says. “Even with the books I’ll say ‘Oh I think I’ll find a publisher’, and they say ‘No, we’re doing it ourselves’.” Ebeling managed the production of the publication, talking to designers at The Guardian about how to convert the files for CMYK printing and negotiating the best paper stock. The publication is half-Berliner size and sold in a plastic folder, but, at £7, it’s much cheaper than a standard catalogue, which Ebeling and Arthur hope will make it more accessible. They plan to make publications for each of the shows but will also print work they’re not showing, and hope that this publishing wing will help support the gallery. They will print Arthur’s next book, for example, a study of women in Saudi Arabia, which will probably have a more conventional bound format.
“Finding a publisher is usually to do with prestige but, for us, it’s the opposite,” says Ebeling. “I feel proud to do it myself. It should be every photographers’ aim to control their book right to the end, and we feel the world has changed to such an extent through the internet that we can promote our books ourselves.”
“You go through the whole process yourself – you make it yourself, much more than if you do the work, hand it over, and let someone else make the book,” says Arthur. “It’s like putting on Pablo’s show here – it isn’t like we didn’t have a big-name gallery [interested in doing it], it’s the fact that we’d rather do it ourselves.”
In this they’re not dissimilar to other small outfits that have set up recently, such as Harry Hardie’s Here (which publishes, exhibits and teaches photographers) or the Bemojake and Stanley Barker publishing companies. They say they’re surprised there aren’t more independent, photographer-run galleries, especially given how many photographers have studios that could easily be used to show work, but expect to see more popping up in future.
“I suppose people have realised that the money is restricted,” says Ebeling. “When I started being a photographer, there were still people who were making good money; now that’s not the case so the people who are sticking around in photography are the ones who are really committed to it, and they are thinking about how they present themselves and how they get the work out there.”
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