Thursday, 16 February 2012

V&A Photographic Archive: Photography as Art

The Victorians proved problematic in my previous archive visit post so in the interest of balance, the next one is far more cheerful. The V&A story begins with an intriguing polymath, civil servant and inventor: Henry Cole (15 July 1808 – 18 April 1882). He was responsible for organising the Great Exhibition (1851) and then founding and developing a science/art collection in the South Kensington area which would both educate the masses and improve British industrial design. As the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art, South Kensington Museum (1857-1873) he recognised the new phenomenon of photography had the right blend of art and science to be relevant to the museum.

Photographs have been collected since its – and the museum’s - inception which offers visitors an incredibly rich history of images. And there are over 500,000 of them to look at. Echoing the Royal Anthropological Society, many of the early images are a form of scientific documentary of museum objects, people and places. Charles Thurston Thompson was appointed as the first official museum photographer in 1856 and many of his images are works of art in their own right.

Photography has been controversial from the beginning. It’s relative immediacy and presentation of events in a realistic way endows it with an authority which sketches and painting perhaps lack. Therefore there is an assumed truth in a photograph which lays traps for the unwary viewer. Very early on people worried about the manipulation of photographs; in a 1858 photo exhibition critics requested that the negative be displayed along side the exhibited print. The story of Roger Fenton’s Crimea War photography is well known and the controversy of whether he staged the cannon balls in his ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ (1855) still rages. However these controversial images have become icons and it is hard to believe that some of these images are from the mid 1800 when they look so modern.

The easy familiarity of the images is simply explained. In the early days of photography it was technically easier to capture landscape, buildings and objects so composition and style was similar to painting. Indeed these early pioneers, including Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) actually saw it as a painterly process, using the vocabulary of art. So there is a classical beauty in these photographs which would not have been out of place in a traditional painting Academy.

Despite this artistic potential there was an element of snobbery about photography which remained an issue until the mid-twentieth century. It was mostly class based: from a gentlemanly pursuit in the late nineteenth century, it became a commercial concern very quickly. Both rich and poor were keen to have their photograph taken. Fashionable ‘Carte de visite’ albums rapidly became collectors’ items. The question of whether photography was art or not meant there was a time between 1950-1977 in many establishment art collections when photography became the poor relation and its value simply wasn’t appreciated. They are now trying to readdress the gap by retrospective collection of key pieces from between these years. Now it is recognised that photography is art and they are working on projects as diverse as ‘Staying Power: Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s’ and the Cecil Beaton ‘Royal Portraits’ to ensure the collection’s relevance and dare I say, commercial success.

As a national collection the V&A receives state funding which is divided up between all museum departments. In common with other archives, the photograph collection is a vast asset and they have been keen to commercialise it but it is a slow process to get images tagged and online. However as a public institute there are knowledgeable staff to assist you i  your search.

The V&A fulfils important multiple roles in the world of fine and applied art; it provides a historical narrative of the development of design, a learning environment for the interested public, collects and maintains contemporary developments and also provides a rich repository of objects to study and admire. The relatively new photography gallery takes its place, equally as important as the rooms of glass, fabrics and sculpture. Henry Cole would have been proud.

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