The Victoria and Albert Museum holds one of the main collections of photography in the world and has been charged since 1977 with “the national collection of the art of photography in the United Kingdom”. Photography played a key role in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the great showcase of Victorian art and industry from which the V&A sprang, and as early as 1855 the museum sent out (on a converted train) a circulating exhibition that included numerous photographs.
No print room in the world is more accessible than that of the V&A, where anybody can view original photographs simply by asking to see them, a remarkable expression of the dedication of the museum to reaching as many users as possible.
A new milestone has been reached in the development of this great collection, which now has an exquisitely refurbished gallery in which to showcase its holdings. Martin Barnes, the curator, has chosen for his first rotation (the display is intended to change every 18 months or so) a mainly conventional cross-section, leavened by piquant choices to remind us that photography spins off in surprising directions.
The last time the V&A celebrated a new photography gallery, in 1997, the show opened with two early daguerreotypes from 1843: St Croix’s view of Parliament Street and Claudet’s portrait of Andrew Pritchard. Both of them make it into the present selection – and with good reason. The late Liz Martin, conservator of photographs at the V&A, used to say that Claudet’s Pritchard was the best-looking man in the whole museum. This tiny portrait of an unshaven young man with splendid bone structure and a mass of curly hair could easily be of a modern film star or musician. Photography has defined modernity and the natural way that a fine portrait from the infancy of the medium still holds its own – and not merely as an antiquarian object – helps to make that very clear.
The new gallery is themed, following broad lines of the usage of photography, functional or artistic. But the sections are open to each other and there are many surprising contrasts as pictures bounce off each other across the room. The history of photography is not linear and this display has enough suggestion of cross-currents to hint at the riches to be discovered, in the V&A and in photography in general. A display case contains a few books, for example, to whet the appetite.
It is a commonplace of photographic history that the functional sometimes acquires a compelling beauty years later and here are thought-provoking examples of that. A view of 1860 credited to the Royal Engineers records that Charles Thurston Thompson, chief photographer at the V&A, trained them in photography. It depicts a cairn on the path of the 49th parallel dividing Canada from the US, and prefigures a certain kind of Land Art with unnerving accuracy. An excitingly eccentric platinum print by Sir Benjamin Stone shows souvenir cups presented by Edward VII after his coronation, thus continuing a long tradition within the V&A of collecting the plain depiction of objects of manufacture or of nature.
Stone and Thurston Thompson were both strong promoters of photography as well as photographers themselves and their inclusion shows how this new gallery reflects layered histories in addition to a sequential group of photographic objects. It is right that a high proportion of them should be of UK origin. Where else are undersung British photographers going to be acknowledged than in the galleries of the national collection of the art? So here we have works by Benjamin Brecknell Turner, Francis Frith and Frederick Evans, all perhaps less well known internationally than they ought to be, as well as a strong but more predictable display of Julia Margaret Cameron.
But photography is international and this is no blinkered Little Englander display. The Swiss photographer Robert Frank is represented by a view of his own family on the beach, a naked daughter flying an large US flag as the son reads a paper whose headline we can read. “Marilyn Dead”, it says, and as so often Frank had made a whole meditation in a single frame. The cult of celebrity, so much photography’s business of late, was nailed right there, in 1962. Photography can do that, and it has a newly visible treasure house in London.