04.03.08-- Lunchtime in Soho, and the Photographers' Gallery is packed. Earnest students with bulky camera bags stand in front of John Davies's paradoxically beautiful English landscapes - monolithic tower blocks, industrial wastelands, urban nightmares - and appraise each image solemnly.
The bookshop and the café are full of wannabe collectors and amateur snappers. Yet upstairs, in a quiet meeting room, the gallery's director, Brett Rogers, is telling me that, no, she can't take a picture to save her life, and that she doesn't even try. "God, I don't take photographs," she says, horrified. "My children, rightly, think I'm rubbish."
Tomorrow night, David Furnish, partner to Sir Elton John and significant collector of photography, will present the annual £30,000 Deutsche Borse Prize to one of four nominees currently showing at the Photographers' Gallery - Davies, Jacob Holdt, Esko Mannikko and Fazal Sheikh. It's the biggest week of the year for Rogers and her staff, culminating in a flashy party attended by the likes of Tate Modern director Vicente Todoli, architect Lord Rogers and designer Nicole Farhi.
"This is our flagship show," confirms Rogers "and this year, unlike last, which was much more arty and detached, each nominee is connecting in some way to a social or political issue. Perhaps it's in the zeitgeist, this need to get to the crux of who we are as human beings."
Indeed, the 2008 show makes for (mostly) sombre viewing. Sheikh's entry features unsmiling portraits of abused women and girls in India; Holdt shoots a drug-using American underclass; and Davies's images, gorgeously printed, detail an English countryside uglified and scarred by human industry. Only Mannikko, the joker of the pack, raises a smile with his brightly coloured, quirky take on life, both animal and human, in northern Finland.
Yet for all the glamour and City money surrounding the prize, for all the rock star collectors - Sir Paul McCartney is another enthusiast - London is still the poor relation when it comes to photography. It is an art form that has always been undervalued here. New York, Paris and Amsterdam all beat London hands down for world-class facilities and state-of-the-art galleries (the first two have established national museums of photography). The world's largest festival of photography takes place each year in Arles, France.
The recent, and 11th-hour, cancellation of this year's London fair, Photo-London, is symptomatic of the lack of importance attached to the medium here. (The festival's organisers were drafted in from Paris and, without local knowledge, scheduled the event for a spring weekend in the middle of the empty City, thereby guaranteeing its failure. Last year's event at Old Billings-gate drew just 7,000 people.) As Martin Parr, perhaps Britain's only householdname art photographer, says: "London is by far the lowest in terms of pecking order when it comes to photography."
But Rogers, the 54-year-old, down-to-earth Australian who cannot work a camera, aims to change all that. "In contemporary art, we've really led the way - with galleries like the Serpentine, the Whitechapel, and of course Tate Modern. But somehow photography has lagged behind. I wonder whether, historically, there's been something in the British psyche that has a block about it? The point is, we now have enough major collectors and enough will to make a radical move, and to reinvent ourselves."
Next year, then, the Photographers' Gallery in Great Newport Street will shut and work will begin on a new, cutting-edge £15.5 million building in Ramillies Street, just off Oxford Street.
"We just can't continue in this current space," says Rogers. "We're too cramped, we're too constrained. We can't ever borrow from [international archives] Getty or MoMa because we haven't got the right environmental conditions. There are still artists who won't show here because it's just not slick enough. We have to provide them, and of course the visitors, with facilities that one expects of a 21st century gallery."
The new building, by Irish architects O'Donnell + Tuomey, is designed to put London on the international map, with three distinct gallery spaces allowing the display of large-scale work and more challenging subject matter. The print sales department will be more accessible, and the bookshop will expand into a reading and resource centre for hobbyists and professionals alike.
Rogers still needs to raise £8 million of the total cost (the rest will come from Lottery funds) and acknowledges that the credit crunch and a depressed City make that job much harder. "It's a very tough climate out there and we honestly think most of the money will come from private individuals, rather than corporates, who see photography as the most accessible art form out there."
She reveals that she has been trying to talk to McCartney about naming one of the galleries after his first wife, Linda, the rock photographer - but "it's a discussion we'll have later: he's got other things on his mind right now".
Yet a miserable economy is potentially good news for photography, too. In general, photographic prints are cheaper than contemporary art - though the biggest names in international photography can sell for small fortunes: Richard Prince's pictures go for £500,000 while Andreas Gursky has attracted a £1.7 million price tag.