In the early 1980s, Ben Burdett was an antiquarian book dealer who sold a few photographs on the side. Photography was then an extension of the book trade, rarely shown in museums or traded by galleries. Even in 1994, when Burdett opened Atlas Gallery, he began by selling books as well as photographs.
Two decades later, the medium has become so established, with a hinterland of growing scholarship and expertise, that most dealers specialise in particular niches, and Atlas now stands out for the unusual breadth and diversity of its interests. These encompass 19th-century works, American modernists such as Paul Strand and mid-20th-century Magnum names, but also lesser-known, connoisseur’s figures – Karl Blossfeldt, for example, who in the 1920s used a homemade camera magnifying subjects by 30 times to depict plants as architectural, abstract structures.
Atlas’s contemporary programme continues to evolve, with recent shows of Nick Brandt, whose majestic black and white animal works chronicle challenges to landscape and wildlife in Africa, and Paolo Ventura, Italian constructor of miniature cities and fantastical tableaux of dolls and actors.
All these are included in Atlas’s 20th anniversary show, which features the original print of Robert Capa’s “Fallen Soldier”, Andreas Feininger’s “The Photojournalist”, and milestones in the gallery’s history that reflect the changing profile of photography on the global art scene. Particularly prominent is Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian whose Serra Pelada series kick-started Burdett’s focus on the medium.
These images of workers – digging out ore with shovels in an opencast gold mine scaled by ladders, the surfaces crawling with figures like ants, and in close-ups where they are depicted with intense individuality and compassion – seem to belong to a pre-industrial past. The shock is that they are dated 1986, and Salgado brilliantly apes the formality and graphic black and white qualities of photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson to indicate the anachronism of appalling conditions: a stunning mix of artistry and social documentary.
To April 26, atlasgallery.com