Introducing the photography collection


The V&A Photography Collection is a huge collection of photographs from the very beginnings of photography right to the present day which began back in the 1850s when the museum was founded. The way that we define photography
here incorporates all kinds of styles from fashion to photojournalism, to advertising, to experimental photography. The Royal Photographic Society Collection
was formed by its members in the 1850s. They were a group of like-minded early photographers who exchanged recipes with each other for the
chemical reactions needed for photographs. They began to form a collection from the beginnings and it’s now about 270,000 photographs, about 6,000 or 8,000 pieces of camera equipment that belong to the early pioneers mostly, and about 26,000 books and journals, and then a huge array of letters and diaries and notebooks. That collection was then transferred to the V&A in 2016. Exciting discoveries are being made all the time as we unpack and unearth the collections of the Royal Photographic Society and bring them into alignment and connection with the V&A collections. We are able to make that available,
make it interpreted and understandable and enjoyable for a public which will see it at the museum, online and touring the world for loans to other museums and exhibitions. What we’re looking at here is
one of the earliest cameras that was used to make some of the very first photographic negatives. It’s a very humble object, it’s a tiny box, really. It was made probably by a
carpenter in the village of Lacock where William Henry Fox Talbot was squire and lived. And he’s the person who is credited with inventing what we
know as the beginnings of photography and this camera made some of those first very negatives. It’s not a beautiful object, it’s not
designed to look amazing. It’s designed to function and it’s the prototype for every single camera which has been made ever since. This is ‘The Spirit of Photography’ by Anne Brigman from 1908. Anne Brigman was an American Pictorialist photographer and the Pictorialists really believed in photography as an art form. They often made things purposely out of focus, they manipulated their photographs on the print as well as in the negative. Brigman made the whole form of the photograph round, which echoes the form of the bubble. It’s in soft focus, it even has lines in it, you can see where she’s manipulated the print by hand. In the picture is a camera, it’s almost showing
the dominance of the artist over the machine. This is a beautiful photograph from the V&A collection by Bernard Eilers who was a Dutch photographer. We think the photograph dates
from around 1934, perhaps 1935, at the time when Bernard Eilers was really experimenting with a beautiful new colour process that he had invented himself. The picture is a wonderfully romantic,
nostalgic view of a night-time street in Amsterdam, in Bernard Eilers’s own city and some of
his most accomplished pictures depict Amsterdam at night and you can see here the gorgeous neon
lights reflected in the wet pavement. These photographs are a set of thirty prints that
were made in the 1970s and 1980s. The portfolio named ‘True Color’ is by Mark Cohen, an American photographer from the north-eastern part of Pennsylvania. In the 1970s in America, colour
photography was being pioneered by figures such as Stephen Shaw and William Eggleston. Cohen, with this portfolio, was really interacting with that tradition by using the dye-transfer process. This is a very complicated and time-consuming process, but really rewards the photographer by producing prints
of great vibrancy and great colour quality. He’d shoot either from the hip, or with his arms outstretched and that’s how you get these really dynamic and compelling crops that both produce a quite off-kilter sense as you look at them and also quite a humorous experience. This is an unusual experimental photograph made by a Japanese photographer called Hiroshi Sugimoto in 2009. It’s called ‘Lightning Fields’. Sugimoto is generating electricity
like an alchemist in his dark room studio, quite a dangerous process using a Van de Graaff
generator which produces sparks and electricity, and he places photographic film on a metal table knowing that sparks will jump across and record a kind of spark or crack of lightning on that film. What’s surprising about it is that we’re not quite sure
the scale of the event that we’re looking at. We could be looking at a lightning strike in the desert, we could be looking at a microscopic scene. The closer you get to it the less that you really understand how big that actual event is, we just have to embrace the mystery of the scale of this image.

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3 thoughts on “Introducing the photography collection

  1. yes, excellent. seen various exhibitions in and about london. is it envy rising with reference to your collection? i dunno. no… but all power to you. pity you don't allow a complete floor to be given up to photographic endeavours… o; you have? cool. i would it be too much to request use of your darkrooms for furtherance of my own photographic endeavours – if only to prove to my incredulous fellow countrymen that i know how to utilize a darkroom…that i achieve my own work – and that, if anything, my own work is being filched.
    this may help with balancing out the disgust film photographers are subjected to by their digital image creators counterparts.

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