May 27, 2018

Picturing the History of Photography through the ‘Victoria and Albert’ Archives

Upon discovering that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London would be opening up it’s photography archives (from 1839-1960s) to form a new permanent exhibition, I envisioned some labyrinthine colossus of a collection, a revelatory world in pictures aptly at home below vaulted ceilings and perhaps against rich, burgundy flock wallpaper. Room 38a is not only corridor shaped and white walled but also cannot boast of more square footage than the gift shop – que my initial but misfounded disappointment.

So the exhibition is modest in scale, and its ambition could be seen as equally unassuming. Rather than a panoramic exploration of the myriad issues, advances and controversies surrounding the photographic image and its impact on the way in which we see, the introduction claims merely that -“The selection here celebrates the creative language and visual appeal of photographs in their many forms.” The exhibition achieves this through a carefully chosen range of pictures and is assisted by the pleasing inclusion of some big names and influential works – Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray are spoken for, as well as early pioneers Edward Fox and Eugene Atget. Rather than images that probe the way in which this unprecedentedly influential art form has impacted the world, the collection effectively charts what the world wants from the photographic image, and the evolution and transformation that this has engendered. Thus the journey of photography’s history is marked by the changing attitude of the photographer to his work as it advances from a means of recording reality into an eloquent mode of self expression.

We start with ‘Discovery’ and marvel at Ludwig Belitski’s ‘Wine Glasses’ (1855) seeing the intrigue of transparency and intricate light and shadow through the eyes of a contemporary. Then we take a tour through scientific experimentation: Roger Fenton’s skeletons, Edward Fox’s micro shots of foliage and Eadweard Muybridge’s leap-frogging man (1887). This aspect of photography’s advancement is, incidentally, delved into at great depth in ‘Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Motion’ currently showing at the Royal Academy, which investigates the medium’s capacity to capture movement in an unparalleled fashion. With equal finesse we are guided through early examples of documentary, fashion, street and finally ‘artistic’ photographs and the choice pictures effectively embody the realization that, as one of the information plaques puts it, photography was, and still is, “a mechanical medium with poetic potential… ideally suited to fuse science and art.”

The main highpoint of the exhibition, for me personally and I am sure for many, is the ‘Focus Point’ on several images by Henri Cartier Bresson, documenting his first experiments with a new compact Leica 35mm camera. These images betray an immense excitement for photography’s potential – the ability to fix an instant of the spontaneous and transient beauty of everyday life – and thus foreground the style of candid photojournalism that would characterise Cartier Bresson’s career. I was particularly drawn to ‘Francia Marseille, 1932’, an image of two men, one sharply dressed and the other in labourer’s clothes at their leisure, reclining on grass which fills the entire frame. Both men are shown in states of relaxation, but the comparison between the languidly posed suit and the labourer’s wanton abandon (and perhaps exhaustion), aesthetically highlights their different social circumstances. The figure in the foreground resembles a ballet dancer on point and raises ideas of performance and display which resonate throughout the image. Another “decisive moment” of the exhibition (to misappropriate Cartier-Bresson’s famous statement) came with Bill Brandt’s ‘Nude, East Sussex Coast’ (1953) which perfectly shows how reality can be distorted through photos in order to recreate our perception and speak more of the artist than of the subject. In this image, the nude, which has fascinated artists since antiquity, is reinvigorated by forming a part of the natural landscape.

Throughout, we are not asked to challenge the damaging and consuming aspects of photography. Ideas about the dubious authenticity of a form which hovers between fact and fiction, nor the effect which photos have had on our modes of knowledge fail to be raised. I was somewhat disappointed in this oversight, as I find these dark and fascinating arguments one of the main draws for my interest in photography’s history – why for example was conflict photography not touched upon, when war and the photo have been inextricably linked in our cultural consciousness since the medium’s birth? I suppose that, despite the tentative melancholic reflections of Roland Barthes and the distrust expressed by Walter Benjamin, it is only really in the Post Modern age that contention over photography’s effect on truth has really come to a head. Therefore the curators of this new exhibition can perhaps justify their somewhat one sided account, given the time frame in which the exhibition operates. The result is what the introduction promised – “a celebration” – and for this part, the photos on display really do succeed in championing the many different purposes and potentials which have been utilized during over a century of image taking and making.

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