I visited this room on 2.7.16 after the Paul Strand exhibition. It’s a selection from the national photographic archive held by the V&A which changes every 18 months. It is also accompanied by prints which can be examined in a separate room if you make an appointment. I didn’t do so this time but will do at the next opportunity.
The current selection explores the human theme from about 1860 to recent years. I found it very engaging and was happy to be able to take rough photographs to help provide a record of what I saw and to note opportunities for further research. It was amazing to see so many photographs by people that I have read about, or seen tiny images in books. For example, Rineke Dijstra, Wolfgang Tillmans, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Bill Brandt, Weegee, Nick Knight.
The first images in the room almost leapt out at me because they were the kind of object that inspired the light-painted Victorian miniatures that I made in my Foundations studies. Taken by Robert Thompson-Crawshay in about 1860, they are made on glass and show men in a Turkish Baths at Merthr Tydfil. They are beautifully presented – mounted under a gold frame and inside a dark-wood box lined with a deep red velvet brocade.
A sleeping baby by Julia Margaret Cameron made me think of Instagram, I am ashamed to say, though again I was taken by the velvet seat covering. I think it was because it’s quite a contemporary image in its way – a quick look on Instagram for “#sleepingbaby” brought up 403,000 matches. I did identify with it, that moment when you know you have at least 30 minutes with one fewer child. Many of these Instagram images also have retro filters applied, either sepia-toned or black and white. Finally, because it’s a very closely framed composition there is hardly anything in the image to peg it to its Victorian context; it could be any child of any time asleep on any vintage or vintage-style sofa.
It was interesting to see a photograph of Lee Miller by Man Ray – I had read a fair bit about and by Lee Miller (and her images) so it was interesting to see her portrayed in a different way, as a headless and leg-less photogram. Weegee’s Coney Island stopped me in my tracks too, there was so much detail in there and it reminded me of the “Where’s Wally” books with the dense mass of people. Across the room as a whole you could see so many different examples of scale of form – from close-ups of toes and ears to the crowded beach.
Ruth Bernhard’s “In the Box, 1962 showed a model reclining in the box that a photographic enlarger had just been unpacked from. This one appealed to me because I am curious about the photographic potential of boxes and the fact that they can hold something or nothing, large or small, known or unknown.
Thomas Mallaender’s “Illustrated People” 2015 made me squirm. He inks negatives scenes of conflict onto models as sunburn via a UV lamp, then layers the images with black and white images from the archives. This one made me think about how our collective past is burned into our consciousness, especially for those directly affected, and how the past can physically hurt.
It was good to see one of Rineke Dijksta’s prints of a boy on the beach. I was surprised by the hugeness of the print, but it worked well that size and I liked the slightly restrained colour palette. I normally think of seaside images as either bright and jolly or stormy and desolate – this was a rather more circumspect colouring that didn’t veer into cliché. It made me think of her series on mothers and newborn babies too – in which case the child has just emerged from the amniotic sac into the mothers arms, the teenage series shows older children just emerged from the sea. I think that because the V&A was also showing its Botticelli exhibition it was hard not to think of Venus here too.
I need to work out the best next step from this exhibition. I will look up further on the photographers and images that I found interesting, and also learn more about the solarisation process as I was intrigued by a couple of Maholy-Nagy prints (Formes Nues) which showed the result.
Photographers to look up:
- Robert Thompson Crawshay (Bather series)
- Juliet Margaret Cameron
- Man Ray
- Erhard Dorner (Children’s hands in a washbasin)
- Ruth Bernahrd (In the Box)
- Mark Cohen (fragmented images)
- Thomas Mallaender
- Corinne Day (England’s Dreaming)
- Suzanne R Dworsky (Sea Breeze)
- Anderson & Low (Athletes and Gymnasts)
- Mateo Hernandez (the Bather)
- Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Formes Nues)
Images are rough phone snaps taken in Room 100, the Victoria & Albert Museum taken for reference purposes only.