Two centuries of photography is celebrated with the new Photography Centre at the V&A which offers a panoramic take on the evolution of the medium from glimpses of the earliest pictures to the arrival of a dynamic new art form and the work of contemporary practitioners.

It’s amazing to think that photography has been recording human life for 200 years.  It must have been thrilling for the early inventors to come up with a system for capturing pictures of people and places, even if it took an age for the image to develop.  And then, it’s just as remarkable to see how quickly new media is adopted by practitioners with an artist’s eye. Almost immediately, early photographers started using the lens in an inventive way and exploring the potential for capturing surprising sights, recording people and staging poses.  To begin with, the process would not have been vastly different from asking a model to pose for an artist to draw or paint them.  The picture above, taken by W.G.Campbell in 1856, of the girl feeding the dog, demanded that both subjects had to stay still for at least seven seconds (good performance by the dog!).

For anyone who loves the evolving technology of photography there are serried rows of early cameras and the paraphernalia of photography to peruse.  I was intrigued to see how quickly photographer learned to use this medium to tell stories.  For example, these shots recreate the story of Little Red Riding Hood. They’re by Henry Peach Robinson from 1858 and show how illustrations and illusion could be created – apparently some reviewers were offended that the images seemed to ‘real’ for a fairy tale!


The ability to capture human expression must have been thrilling. For centuries artists have been capturing faces in all manner of grimace, smile, howl or smirk.  All of a sudden, you could do this in less than a minute. What a breakthrough! A great exponent of this was Ernst Schulz who, in 1967, dressed himself for a whole series of ‘selfies’ acting out a range of emotions. They’re wonderful.

Daguerre established early studios for portraits and this became hugely popular. The human desire for a recording of a loved-one is such a strong desire.  And the results, Daguerreotypes on glass, look so charming in their little velvet frames. These ones were taken by Antoine Claudet, a pupil of Daguerre, who set up a studio in London.

Moving into the last century there are great examples of photographers who found pleasure in incidental images and the chance to capture them. I’ve seen these before, but the ‘faces’ photographed by Brassai in Paris are witty and compelling.

Now these images of Spomeniks are something I’ve never seen before and knew nothing about. They were taken by Jan Kempenaers in 2006-7 and they’re of monuments built in former Yugoslavia on the sites of Second World War battles and concentration camps.  They just look weird.

Mary McCartney has donated some shots from her imaged entitled Off Pointe along with family photographs taken by her mother, Linda McCartney.


And in a separate gallery there is a collection of digitally created images by artist Thomas Ruff. He has created a series inspired by Linnaeus Tripe‘s 1850s paper negatives of India and Burma, held in the V&A’s collection.  Taking images which are 160 years old he has created a series of haunting images which carry the patina of age and atmosphere of the date of the original prints through the enhancing of small details and fogging of focus. The contemporary pieces by Ruff have the feeling of lithographs; they are beautiful.


The Photography Centre opens on 12th October 2018. (Free)  The Spotlight Exhibitions of contemporary photography will change regularly. 


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