BY Laurie Taylor in Opinion | 12 OCT 18

From Negatives to Pixels: Alternative Histories at the V&A’s Photography Centre

In an age when the camera is continually absorbed into other technologies, this inaugural show focuses on photography as practice

BY Laurie Taylor in Opinion | 12 OCT 18

On a recent train journey, I overheard a woman, inspired by an especially picturesque landscape, remark to her travelling companion: ‘I should get a photo of that...where’s my phone?’ There is nothing immediately unusual about this in 2018. Though in no history of photography that I’ve ever encountered has Alexander Graham Bell’s name appeared. Despite this, for the past decade, the most common implement used to make photographs is indeed a telephone. And the perception is that the camera is in the phone, not the other way round. Nobody ever says, ‘I need to make a call, where’s my camera’.

In short, the camera has been absorbed into other objects, other technologies, and in the process, the notion of photography as an independent medium made up of its own specific materials and comprising its own specific practices and functions has perhaps gotten lost in the mix. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s new Photography Centre, which opens to the public on 12 October 2018, attempts to redress this balance by dedicating itself solely, as the name suggests, to photography – and not just photographic images, but also the tools, materials, devices and varied approaches that make up the medium’s past, present and perhaps, its future.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Articles of China from The Pencil of Nature, 1844, salted paper print, varnished. Courtesy: © The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A

The Photography Centre, designed by David Kohn Architects, is housed in a space that incorporates several of the museum’s historic galleries, which were refurbished and reconfigured not only to double the space previously devoted to photographic display, but also to create a unique visitor experience in which viewers are not only able to see some of the world’s most important photographs, but also to engage with many of the materials and processes that brought these images to fruition. An impressive installation of more than 150 historic cameras forms the Centre’s entrance, which also features an interactive station where visitors are able to handle different cameras, peering through the viewfinders to see what the world looked like through those early, rudimentary lenses, and perhaps gaining a better understanding of what photography may have meant for its pioneers.

This emphasis upon the objects, materials and processes of photography runs throughout the Centre’s inaugural exhibition, where purpose-built display cabinets call attention to early photographic forms, such as magic lantern slides and stereographs; as well as often forgotten aspects of the medium, such as negatives – particularly the paper and glass varieties of 19th-century photography; and to a diverse assortment of photographic genres with examples from photojournalism, advertising and science. There is even a ‘dark tent’ – a specially designed space, inspired by the travelling darkrooms of early photographers, in which the pioneering photographic processes of daguerreotypes, calotypes and wet collodions are demonstrated in a series of commissioned films.

Man Ray, La Maison, 1931, photogravure from a photogram. Courtesy: © Man Ray; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As for the images themselves, although some will be familiar to viewers, such as the snowy Manhattan street with horse-drawn carriage seen in Alfred Stieglitz’s Winter-New York (1898); and familiar names such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Martin Parr and Hiroshi Sugimoto, are even more plentiful, this debut exhibition is not a ‘greatest hits’ of photography, nor is it intended to be. The focus here is on photography as practice, both historically and on-going, and while famous pictures and names will invariably fall within that remit, the greater emphasis is placed on the fact that there is not one definitive history of photography, but rather many different histories. Despite being amassed together in a single exhibition, the images on display manage to tell multiple stories, tracing multiple histories.

The history of photography as a technology, for example, is told in Nicéphore Niépce’s pioneering heliographs, in the early colour experiments of Bernard Eilers, whose stunning Reguliersbreestraat, Amsterdam (1934), which depicts neon-lit storefronts reflected in the shiny wet of an empty street, was made using the ‘foto-chroma’ colour separation process he invented; and in the digital work of Penelope Umbrico. Photography’s history as a means of communication and documentation is told in the photojournalism of Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark and W. Eugene Smith and the street photography of Mark Cohen whose series of close-up candids, True Color (1974-87), is showcased in an impressive feature wall. The history of photography as the medium of the masses is referenced in a display of random, unattributed snapshots; and finally, the story of photography as a fine art is told in beautifully aesthetic works by Gertrude Käsebier, Man Ray and Cindy Sherman.

Thomas Ruff, Tripe_01 (Amerapoora. Mohdee Kyoung), C-type print, 2018. Courtesy: © Thomas Ruff; David Zwirner Gallery

Unveiled for the first time, will be a new series by acclaimed artist Thomas Ruff. Specifically commissioned for the opening of the Photography Centre, Ruff’s new series, Tripe/Ruff, reinterprets the topographical and architectural images of Burma and India made by Linnaeus Tripe, in the 1850s. Tripe’s original images of palaces, religious monuments and archaeological sites were made for the East India Company and were intended to act as survey material for the region, but managed also to demonstrate an undeniable artistry, due in part to Tripe’s textured paper negatives and hand-painted clouds. Combining analogue and digital photographic processes, Ruff layered Tripe’s paper negatives with the corresponding albumen prints, pulling the colours and tones from one into the other, while also retaining the effects rendered by years of water damage and discolouration to produce works such as Tripe_01 (Amerapoora. Mohdee Kyoung) (2018), in which a pagoda-like structure peeks out from behind blue, grey and sepia toned trees, the entire scene mottled with the scratches, water spots, and imperfections of the original paper surface.

For Ruff – an artist first and foremost – the haunting and gothic beauty of the final images was undoubtedly the primary objective, but equally notable are the numerous points of convergence that allow these images to slot so seamlessly into this inaugural exhibition. Ruff combines negative and print, analogue and digital, old and new, and in so doing also incorporates many of photography’s individual histories, from the technological to the documentary to the artistic. Blending the old technology of paper negatives with 21st-century digital manipulation, Ruff gives new life to old images, transforming Tripe’s topographical documents into aesthetic works of art. For an exhibition that aims to celebrate the medium of photography in all its material, developmental and functional guises, the Tripe/Ruff series seems an especially fitting first commission for the Photography Centre.

V&A Photography Centre entrance. Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photograph: © Will Pryce

The V&A’s Photography Centre offers fresh potential for highly focused future exhibitions, which might spotlight individual photographic genres, displaying not only images, but also specific materials, processes and objects associated with each. Bearing in mind also that this is only Phase 1 of the Photography Centre (Phase 2, which will double the space created in Phase 1, is due for launch in 2022), the V&A’s commitment to preserving photography’s historic movements while still accommodating new trends and developments looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. For a medium whose materiality is increasingly absorbed into other objects, whose processes are increasingly absorbed into other technologies, the V&A’s new Photography Centre and its inaugural display make a timely statement. Those of us who reach for the phone to take a photograph should pay attention. 

Main image: V&A Photography Centre – the Dark Tent, The Modern Media Gallery. Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photograph: © Will Pryce

Laurie Taylor is a writer and editor based in London, UK.