the photography centre

I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new Photography Centre in search of inspiration: I wanted it to make me care about photography.

When deciding if an artwork is good, I ask myself 3 questions:

  1. Do I like it aesthetically?
  2. Is it doing something clever?
  3. Does it stand alone? (instead of needing a tonne of explanation).

If it’s a yes to at least one of these questions I’m usually a fan, but more often than not photography gets 3 nos (it’s a lot like X Factor). Which is sad because deep down I want to “get” photography!

So, I went to the V&A in search of a lightbulb moment, and I got half way there: I saw things that genuinely impressed me! Although I still think I’m a way off getting all photography, some personal growth was made. Here’s a summation of my experience/a review:

The collection begins before you even enter the gallery, with an impressive display of old cameras greeting you at the top of the stairs, so you know you’re in the right place. The doors to the centre were a little imposing, (I’m hyper critical about doors in art galleries, galleries are already so intimidating, why fit a heavy or confusing door? – it’s very off-putting). Once I plucked up the courage to try the door, I managed to get in first try!

Anyway, the centre starts off with very old photographs: heliographs, albumen prints, daguerreotypes, cyanotypes etc. Which were interesting and reminded me that photography is really an amazing invention. It’s kind of amazing to see all these very old-fashioned people photographed, it reminds you how revolutionary it all was. I gained respect for photography’s inventors, although I did get a little bored of old photos after about 5 minutes, but that’s just me with my short attention span for old things.

In the middle of the first room are some interactive machines, I didn’t have a go because even on a Thur

sday afternoon it was busy, but they looked fun and make a cool clicking sound.

There was a photograph by Madame Yevonde, a Suffragette and photographic innovator. It was a solarised picture of two women wearing saris, I wish they had some more of her works on display, but it did seem like a 1 photo per photographer situation.

I also liked a photo by Long Chin-San because it reminded me of traditional Chinese ink paintings and I thought he must’ve been very clever with his developing to produce a similar stripped-back effect.

The curators had put some photographs of African masks next to Brassaï’s images of Parisian street graffiti which looked like faces. The juxtaposition was fun, but it didn’t say anything, it was just a nice “oh look, they’re kind of the same but different”. I didn’t manage to get a photo of this because people kept standing of front of it – it was popular, but I was slightly confused.

A load of Brownie portable cameras were on display next to the type of snapshot photographs which these cameras produce. This sort of juxtaposition made more sense to me than the African mask/graffiti fiasco.

I got very excited by the copies of Camera Work they had in the display cases, it made me realise how old this magazine was. The paper was very thin, they looked like ancient artefacts. It’s amazing how many times you can be told something was published at the turn of the 20th century and yet still not realise that that’s a bloody long time ago! Anyway, this anecdote is a great example of why it’s important to go and look at art (and photography and objects in general) in person.

The next room seemed to jump forward in time. There was a lot more colour in this room, and I liked a lot of the stuff on show. The big photographs at the end on the yellow walls were a bit yawn, but maybe I just had museum fatigue at this stage. There was a great little photobook by Thomas Sauvinon in one of the cabinets, it was shaped like a cigarette packet and was filled with fantastic photos of Chinese weddings which apparently involve a lot of smoking.

A few of the photobooks (including Thomas Sauvinon’s) were available to look at (and touch!) in the library. After some confusion with the security guard I ended up signing up for an Art Library card, which I don’t think was actually necessary to look at these books, but it was free!

The Art Library is a really beautiful part of the museum, I wish I’d taken a photograph, but it had very no photo vibes to it – the irony. If you want to make a visit here’s my top tips: make sure you put your bag in the cloakroom before going to the library because it’s a trek, keep some ID on you as they need it to sign you up for a library card, don’t bring any pens as they provide pencils and don’t go with a cold, it’s also got no coughing vibes.

So, is the Photography Centre worth a visit? Definitely. In two rooms it manages to concisely tell a history of photography and it’s put me on the path to “getting” it. If you visit and still aren’t convinced, well there’s always the rest of the museum to explore.


Link for the Thomas Sauvinon bit


Written by Chloe Austin

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