Why photography needs museums

By Eliza Williams

The photography landscape in the UK is thriving right now, with significant exhibitions appearing regularly in major gallery and museum spaces across the country. There is also an exciting festival scene, including established events such as Photo London, taking place this weekend, and newcomers such as Photo North, arriving in Harrogate for the first time this autumn.

Into this exciting environment comes a major new photography centre at the V&A in London, which will double the space currently devoted to the medium at the museum. The new space will draw from the V&A’s extensive collection, as well as the Royal Photographic Society’s collection, which was recently transferred to the London site from National Media Museum in Bradford.

Included in its extensive opening display will be historical works by William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron and Frederick Scott Archer, as well as more recent acquisitions from the likes of Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cornelia Parker, Linda McCartney and Mark Cohen.

Paul, Stella and James, Scotland, 1982 by Linda McCartney; © Paul McCartney
Pomona, 1872 by Julia Margaret Cameron; © The RPS collection at the V&A Museum, London

Opening the site will also be an exhibition of newly commissioned works by Thomas Ruff, which are inspired by works from the 1850s in the V&A’s collection by Linnaeus Tripe. This thread between historical and contemporary photography is one that Martin Barnes, Senior Curator at the V&A, is keen to encourage at the centre.

“I’m interested in that role that the museum has of presenting the past of photography but making it relevant for the present,” he explains. “In some senses every photograph is now. I find it hard to distance myself from historical photographs because I find them just as exciting as contemporary photographs, sometimes more so. Lots of historical photography looks very fresh to me.”

Barnes points out that many of the central tenets of photography have remained unchanged over the decades, despite vast changes in technology. “The essentials are still the same,” he says. “Light, time, a light-sensitive receptive surface of some sort, if it’s digital or analogue, it doesn’t matter. You have somebody trying to make a visual solution out of the scene before the camera.

“Photography is so much about editing down what you take and the sequence of images – all that is something that was being done in the 1850s and being explored by the pioneers of photography. Those visual solutions to a problem that you’re posing or how you convey an idea are still very current.”

‘The highest photograph ever taken’, Mount Everest expedition of 1922. Photographers: Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury, George Herbert Leigh Mallory, Sandy Wollaston; © The RPS collection at the V&A Museum, London
From the series Hairstyles, 1970 by J D Okhai Ojeikere; © The Estate of J D Okhai Ojeik

As well as examining the history of photography, Barnes is keen for the V&A to explore the many ways that photography is used in culture – from documentary to fine art, fashion to advertising – and consider how these various styles and uses interact. “In such a short period of time, the use of images has become a global language that crosses boundaries so quickly and so fluidly,” he explains. “It’s become a way of communicating – the text message and so on is still around but we communicate in images so much more quickly.

“The role of the museum is to try and make sense of that explosion of imagery and different forms of visual communication and to unpick the codes that are being used … the difference between a marketing image, a fashion image and a journalistic image or an image made for a fine art context. Often a lot of art photographers are using the language of those different genres and playing with them – we have quite a sophisticated layering of visual styles.

“If it was language we would be taught this at school – about the difference between a poem and a bit of journalism or a piece of prose – whereas the visual language of photography is much less well taught, in school at least. So museums have a responsibility to help unpick that visual language, to explain where these images come from, what their history is and how to read them.”

Animal Locomotion, Plate 788, Camel Trotting, 1887 by Eadweard Muybridge; © V&A Museum, London
Mark Cohen
One Red Glove, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1975; © Mark Cohen/V&A Museum, London

Barnes points out how the V&A’s history of connecting different aspects of culture and design – from ‘high’ to ‘low’ – makes it natural for such examinations to continue around photography in the new centre. “That’s the DNA of what the V&A does, which is very different from an art gallery,” he says. “It’s a museum of art and design and performance – it’s about culture in its broadest sense and how people design and make and visualise things is what the museum’s core mission is really.

“A lot of what we do is going back to the object to help you tell the story – it’s like a university but based on objects rather than theory and text. Photographs are so ubiquitous and appear in so many different forms that what I’m interested in is looking at the broad cultures of photography rather than one element of it. I’m really interested in all the crossovers between photographs that are made to look at architecture or to do with advertising or photojournalism or fashion, and how it overlaps with commercial graphics and design.

Reguliersbreestraat, Amsterdam, c. 1934 by Bernard F Eilers; © Bernard F Eliers/V&A Museum, London
Jimi Hendrix, 1968 by Linda McCartney; © Paul McCartney

“A lot of the great photographers also survived by simultaneously making commercial work,” he continues. “Walker Evans worked for magazines, Man Ray made advertising pictures and his commercial practice and his personal fine art practice fed off one another. It’s always been there in photography – it’s very rare that you get a fine art photographer that hasn’t worked in the commercial world in some way.

“The commercial side of photography is part and parcel of the whole culture of the way we look at photographs. Basic questions that I’m always asking about photographs are about what do they actually show and what are they intended for. Sometimes those original meanings of the photographs, original intentions, are lost over time and we sort of divorce them from their original context and look at them as fine artworks whereas sometimes they might have been made as documentary records or as advertising or as straight portraiture. There’s so many different ways to read them, that’s part of the excitement of them.”

Scott’s Last Exhibition, A Dog Team Resting, 1910; © V&A Museum, London

As well as the photographs themselves, the centre will contain an installation of over 150 cameras, to help explain how the equipment used influences the work that is created. “There’s lots of reasons why historical camera equipment is interesting, more than you might think,” says Barnes. “Partly because of the way it’s made, the way it’s crafted, often the objects themselves speak very much about the design of the time. So the camera is like a design icon as it moves through history.

“But it’s also about the way the type of camera that you choose allows you to witness the world in a different way. So if you’re using a very large plate camera on a tripod, you slow down and look at the world in a very different way than you would if you were using a 35mm Leica camera, a camera that you put up to your eye. You begin to make aesthetic choices the moment that you choose the piece of equipment. That’s why I’m interested in showing some of the equipment.”

In our digitally dominated age, where most photographs are viewed on screens, often at a tiny size, Barnes is keen to use the museum space to allow people to see original prints too. “I think by seeing original photographs in all their different sizes and print types and colours and surfaces and scales makes such a huge difference,” he says, “because I think often what happens with viewing photographs on screen is that they all become flattened in their surface appearance and their size. So I think it’s important to have a place where you can come and see real prints in a real space and see what that does to how you read them.”

William Henry Fox Talbot’s mousetrap camera, c. 1835; © The RPS collection at the V&A Museum, London
Kodak camera, No. 2A Beau Brownie (blue), 1930-33; © The RPS collection at the V&A Museum, London

The decision to move the RPS collection from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the V&A caused a huge outcry when it was announced last year, but Barnes hopes that the new centre will justify the move, by allowing much more of the collection to be on display to the public. In addition to the centre, a new purpose-built storage facility has been created on site and photographs not on display will be available to be viewed in the V&A’s Prints & Drawings Study Room.

“What was lost [in the debate after the move] was the subtlety of what is best for the RPS collection,” says Barnes. “The question became more about a north-south divide of culture more broadly – of course it’s part of that discussion but it oversimplifies the question about what is the best thing to do with the RPS collection and where can it be looked after and made available. Part of it is about taking stock of that collection and doing the work that needs to be done on it, to then open it up further again.

“I think there’s a misconception that national collections belong to one particular place,” he continues. “We are the caretakers of that collection for a period of time and what we can do with it is make it available.”

Hiroshi Sugimoto
From the series Lightning Fields by Hiroshi Sugimoto, 2009; © Hiroshi Sugimoto

The V&A Photography Centre will open on October 12; vam.ac.uk

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