Skip Links

Interview with Jennifer Scott, Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery is set to reopen to the public on May 19th. We caught up with Director, Jennifer Scott, ahead of her appearance at the Dulwich Festival, where she will be discussing the Gallery’s acclaimed photographic exhibition, ‘Unearthed:Photography’s Roots’, along with exhibition curator, Alexander Moore.


Anna Atkins Vol. 1, part. 1, Plate 55. Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state and in fruit

Credit Horniman Museum and Gardens


The Picture Gallery hasn’t been able to open during lockdown, what has been happening behind the scenes during this period?

When visitors return, they will discover an exciting re-presentation of the Collection – the first since 2013 – which throws fresh light on our world-famous paintings and offers contemplative moments for restorative reflection and inspiring visual encounters. 

Our welcome hall has been reimagined to provide a bright, airy, and Covid-safe experience for all visitors. Designed by acclaimed artist Sinta Tantra, the space features a new commission – a mural called ‘The Grand Tour’ – taking inspiration from the Gallery’s original architect, Sir John Soane, and his travels to Italy.


Do you feel that ‘Unearthed’ will be even more poignant given that many have reconnected with nature over the period of isolation?

Definitely! This is an ideal moment for an exhibition that celebrates the reviving quality of nature. With this seminal show, we can all experience renewal through spectacular photographs that veer from the scientific investigation of a cauliflower to the erotic explosion of an over-ripe bloom.


Why do you think so many photographers have such a connection to nature?

I think there are a variety of reasons for this fascination with nature: the opportunity to engage with the artistic still-life tradition, taking up the mantle from the likes of Jan Brueghel the Elder (a beautiful 17th-century flower painting by Brueghel is in the exhibition); a desire to catalogue the natural world; the allure of making links between photography and photosynthesis; the closeness of the relationship between photographer and still-life subject, both united by their essential mortality. Also, on a practical level, plants and flowers make very patient models – they can hold a pose for much longer than human beings!


In Victorian times, a photograph was considered to be more of an object than an image; do you believe that in our digital age we have lost the true value of a photo?

In the 19th-century, there was anxiety around the new technology of photography impacting the established meaning of art, but it is accepted as a significant art form today. Now it is the turn of digital imagery to find its place, perhaps as a new genre. Interestingly, in terms of value, recent sales of digital images have eclipsed even the highest values ever seen in the photography market. Perhaps it has always been the ‘picture’, rather than the object, that has captivated us.


Unearthed‘ is the Picture Gallery’s inaugural major photographic exhibition; since Victorian times people have asked the question, is photography art? Where do you stand in this debate?

I love this debate! Photography is an important art form, but not all photographs are made with artistic intentions. Some photographs considered to be ‘art’ today were not considered as such at the time of their making. The very act of placing them in a gallery causes us to appraise them as art. In my opinion, creativity is within each of us, and the act of being creative is art itself. When considering works for our exhibitions we can ask: Does it make you think? Does it inspire you? Does it innovate? Does it respond to, and/or react against, the art of the past? Can you ‘find yourself’ in it? In various forms, the art you will see in our exhibitions at the Gallery will score ‘yes’ in response to these questions.  


Do you believe that photos can ever reclaim the limelight in this digital age?

Many of the successful contemporary artists represented in the exhibition are working with essentially traditional techniques. Adam Fuss and the daguerreotype, Joy Gregory and the lumen print, Richard Learoyd and the camera obscura… The ‘photo’ has not left the limelight yet.


The exhibition examines what the word ‘picture’ means to us; what does the word mean to you? 

Any visual representation of a concept that is in some way recorded, by hand or by machine. It could be a painting, photograph, etching, motion picture, all sorts. The Gallery is a home for pictures in all shapes, types, and sizes.


What are your personal highlights of the exhibition?

My highlight is ‘Tulips’ by Robert Mapplethorpe. It is a simple black and white photograph with astonishing power. The exquisite tension between the two flowers – reaching towards each other and so nearly touching – reminds me of the hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

I recently asked the exhibition’s curator, Alex Moore, the same question. His standout moment in the show is: “Karl Blossfeldt’s ability to turns weeds and grass into something out of this world”.


12th May, 7pm ‘Unearthed: Photography’s Roots’ In Conversation with Jennifer Scott & Alexander Moore 

Event details here

‘Unearthed: Photography’s Roots’ is on view at the Gallery until 30 August 2021

window.dataLayer = window.dataLayer || []; function gtag(){dataLayer.push(arguments);} gtag('js', new Date());gtag('config', 'UA-11658545-30');