V&A Photographs Gallery – It’s About Time!

Posted on November 1, 2011


This article was originally written for MouthLondon magazine

This week the V&A opened to the public its much-anticipated Photography Gallery. Unpacked from the archives, the display is comprised of articles from the V&A’s internationally renowned collection of photographs, and chronicles the development of photography from the early 19th century. Since the V&A has decided to display only photographs up until the 1960s, the obvious question is: why has it taken so long?

Photographs have long provided a challenge for museum and gallery curators. Are they art or historical document? Do they belong on the wall of the gallery, the museum, or in the archive? The V&A’s new display does not support any one argument, but instead simply showcases the most fascinating and artistically brilliant results that the diverse medium of photography has produced. From some of the first tourist photographs taken of the Taj Mahal, by John Murray in the 1850s, to Stieglitz‘s impressionistic photograph of a steam train.

There are some real gems in this collection. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s enthrallingly, beautiful photographs are given a special focus. And rightly so – his novel approach and dedication to “The Decisive Moment” inspired a new generation of photographers. 

The curators have told a story through choice works: from the early experimentations and evident excitement over the mechanical production of an image, to the struggle to define what photography is and should be used for. And although this story stops at 1960 – where the V&A claims there was a “shift” in the medium – the museum has promised more temporary displays of contemporary photography.

The V&A has made a new space for the history of photography within one of the oldest collections of art and objects; it may have taken them a while, but it can only be a good thing.

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