The History of Photography Through the Lens of Collecting
Given the monumental changes driven by new technology in the last twenty years it’s easy to forget that photography is still a relatively new art form.
Collecting photography therefore is still in it’s infancy and continues to develop with The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) at the forefront, with one of the biggest photography collections in the world.
It might be something of a surprise therefore that The V&A have only just opened their first permanent photography galleries, or Photography Centre, home to the national collection of the art of photography.
Although a relatively small display through two galleries the breadth of display, from the earliest experiments with light sensitive materials to newly commissioned works marking the opening of these new galleries, is extensive and given the size of The V&A’s collection one can only assume that the display will develop & change over time.
Entering the exhibition I was immediately struck by how photography has always been on the steepest of development curves and the controversy and misunderstanding we see today is a pattern that has been constantly repeated throughout it’s life.
An early photograph shows Don Quixote in his Study by photographer William Henry Lake Price from 1855 which caused controversy when it was first displayed, viewers felt the realism of photography compared to Victorian painters was inappropriate.
Don Quixote in his Study by William Henry Lake Price
The exhibition majors on the theme of story telling through (the new medium) of photography and this is no better illustrated than through a pair of images produced by Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) in 1873. Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic photographer, exploring the theme of story telling in still pictures and regularly had his models dress in foreign costumes, acting out stories.
The exhibition includes early examples of photographs used to tell factual stories, Francis Frith’s photo from 1858 of the Pyramids of Dahshoor bought a new level of realism to biblical scenes for a Christian Victorian audience whilst Herbert Ponting’s photo of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the South Pole from 1911 serves as a memorial to the unsuccessful expedition and illustrates the treacherous territory encountered.
Two further displays caught my eye in terms of putting modern photography into context;
Dieter Meier’s 29 Pictures in 5 minutes from 1970, in an era long before social media photography & selfies, shows a run of the mill street scene where the subjects slowly become aware of the photographer and react in various ways, some moving away, some playing to the camera and some seemingly responding angrily &/or uncomfortably, maybe some things never change!
The second display of particular note is that of Mark Cohen’s True Color. We have such easy access to high quality, colour photography that we take it for granted and it’s difficult to imagine a time when rich, dynamic colours weren’t available but this collection, taken in the early 1970’s serves to remind us that colour photography was only recognised as fine art in the 70’s.
When compared with similar, earlier black & white collections the effect of the colour, the added depth, detail and interest makes me wonder how it’s artistic merit could ever be doubted.
In a time when the entire future of photography, as a serious art form & valuable medium is doubted by some, the opening of the new Photography Centre at The V&A reminds us that development is cyclical and we can continually learn from history. Photography has progressed so far in such a short time, who knows how these galleries will look in twenty years time.
For now the enduring ability of a single image to create an instant & long lasting impact is a welcome reminder and the opening of a permanent display reinforces the value of the medium as an important art form as well an influential medium in recording social history.
I look forward to the exhibition developing, changing and continuing to push the technology as well as the perception of photography collections.