The V&A Photography Center: finally doing justice to the museum’s 170-year photographic heritage
I wouldn’t quite call the V&A photographic holdings a hidden gem in our national collections, but they are still surprisingly little known to many of us. Part of the problem is the museum’s eclecticism. But neither has it offered space comparable to that for sculpture, design, decorative arts, the Raphael cartoons and his other world-leading collections. Until now.
The Photography Center expands the V&A’s photo galleries from three rooms to seven – adding magnificent rooms that finally do justice to the wealth it has built up over 170 years. The necessity of the rooms is illustrated by the fact that, even in this expanded exhibition, they only contain 600 of the—you gotta know—800,000 items in the museum’s photographic collection.
The title of the selection in the first two rooms we come across (opened in the first phase of the project in 2018) is “Energy: Sparks from the Collection” – appropriately dynamic, yet vague enough to unify the curators to be part of the history of photography. Some of the big hitters are here, from Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton to Julia Margaret Cameron and Eugéne Atget to Bernd and Hilla Becher.
There are some great photographs of all time, such as Cameron’s portrait of scientist John Herschel, perhaps the best example of her aim to capture “the greatness of the inner man as well as the features of the outer man,” which she said is “almost embodiment.” of a prayer”. I’ve probably seen this image hundreds of times, but it’s always incredibly moving thanks to the intensity and fragility of Hershel’s gaze.
Then there’s Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Palermo, Sicily (1972), in which two children dizzily push a bike along the sidewalk while a hearse lurks in the street behind them. This also takes your breath away. Sunil Janah, the great documentary filmmaker of Indian independence, is portrayed through the extraordinary fusion of two negatives reflecting riotous demonstrations in Calcutta in 1942.
But perhaps the most striking element of Energy isn’t the biggest hits, it’s the surprises. Since Tate has (belatedly) built its own impressive photo collection, one tends to assume that’s where we go to find “fine art photography” in our national collections. But the V&A here refutes that view. I was delighted to see Jo Spence, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Gabriel Orozco and Lorna Simpson – artists among the photowriters and photojournalists.
And this emphasis on the bold and creative, indeed the explosion of the actual meaning of photography, is also carried over to the new spaces. The first thing that catches our eye is the video work of Jake Elwes, which uses deepfake and artificial intelligence to create drag performances to tunes by Beyoncé and Bowie. Elwest alludes to the social and political biases inherent in AI technology regarding non-normative identities. AI and photography are a hot topic; I suspect Elwes’ project won’t be the last work to consider here.
Beyond is a room dedicated to photography and books – still unfinished when I saw it, but potentially an important focal point of this crucial aspect of photographic art. Then a truly global selection of new V&A acquisitions by contemporary artists that push the boundaries of photography, often revealing its history in the process.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya combines photography and performance, while Noemie Goudal extends his presence beyond the wall into sculptural space. Sammy Baloji explores the colonial and extractive practices inherent in Hans Himmelheber’s historical anthropological photographs. And Gauri Gill’s remarkable image sequence of Delhi peasant dwellings protesting against laws threatening their livelihoods and Vasantha Yogananthan’s contemporary reinterpretation of the epic Sanskrit text Rāmāyaṇa reflect the poetic potential of their medium, even if based on vastly different strategies.
The argument is clear: photography has enormous aesthetic and social significance. It has never been so universal and diverse. And it takes these beautiful new galleries to reflect that.
V&A, from May 25; vam.ac.uk
https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/exhibitions/v-a-new-photography-centre-review-170-years-b1082364.html The V&A Photography Center: finally doing justice to the museum’s 170-year photographic heritage