The V&A in London will tomorrow open its newly designed Photography Centre, which doubles the size of the space previously devoted to photography at the museum, and spans four new galleries.
On arrival at the entrance to the new photography galleries, visitors are given a snapshot of how much photography has changed in its lifetime, via a display of over 150 cameras stretching back to the 1800s. A selection of these machines are available to be handled by the public, including a magnificent field camera from the 1880s, complete with cloth hood, which offers the chance to see just what the world would have looked like through a camera lens almost two centuries ago.
Inside the galleries themselves, visitors are given a whistle-stop tour of photography through the ages, stretching from seminal prints by pioneers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Eadweard Muybridge and William Henry Fox Talbot (with an impressive camera owned by Fox Talbot also on display) to works by contemporary figures from Martin Parr to Cindy Sherman.
The historical meets the contemporary head on in an exhibition of new works by German artist Thomas Ruff. Commissioned by the V&A, Ruff has reinterpreted a series of paper negatives by Linnaeus Tripe, taken in India and Burma in the 1850s and held in the V&A’s collection.
Ruff’s large-format series of prints, which see the negatives enlarged by over three times their original size, reveal minute detail on the images as well as Tripe’s habit of ‘retouching’, in particular the way he painted the reverse of the negatives to add details such as clouds.
The V&A has done an excellent job of offering a nod to almost all aspects of photography in the new galleries, which were designed by David Kohn Architects. From stereograph viewers to a display of photo books, a ‘Dark Tent’ (a multimedia projection space inspired by a 19th century photographers’ travelling darkroom) to a digital ‘Light Wall’ for showing screen-based photography, moments from across photography’s history are acknowledged here.
There is also a wide selection of photographic styles, from documentary to art. Commercial photography barely gets a look in though – bar some fascinating historical fashion prints and Linda McCartney’s iconic images of 60s pop stars – which feels an oversight in a display obviously keen to embrace all aspects of photography’s history.
Beyond this, the only major complaint could be a desire for more, with the V&A’s display – detailed and thoughtful as it is – only able to offer a sketch of photography’s rich and varied history. The Centre also only reveals the tip of the iceberg of the V&A’s collection of photography, which features over 800,000 works (including the Royal Photographic Society collection, transferred from the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford last year).
This is the first phase in the V&A’s plans for the Photography Centre, with a second phase scheduled to open in 2022, with plans including a teaching and research space, a browsing library and a studio and darkroom for photographers’ residencies.
But will even these extra facilities be enough to do justice to photography’s vibrant history and its huge influence on contemporary culture? The V&A’s excellent new galleries provide a much needed scholarly approach to the medium but in the space allowed, serve only to whet the appetite for more.