Sleep­ing hip­pos and bal­anc­ing Bea­tles

From the con­tents of an os­trich’s stom­ach to the McCart­neys in Kin­tyre, the V& A’s new Pho­tog­ra­phy Cen­tre is a vis­ual treat, writes Sean O’Ha­gan

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

The first thing you see as you en­ter the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert’s newly ex­panded Pho­tog­ra­phy Cen­tre is a huge plate cam­era on a wooden tri­pod. It be­longed to Henry Fox Tal­bot, the found­ing fa­ther of Bri­tish pho­tog­ra­phy. In an ad­ja­cent glass case, an ar­ray of his other cam­eras are on show along­side his note­books and his pho­tog­ra­phy book The Pen­cil of Na­ture. The cen­tre’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion is Col­lect­ing Pho­tog­ra­phy: From Da­guerreo­type to Dig­i­tal, but it is the process of pho­tog­ra­phy that is the in­trigu­ing sub­text.

There are now two main gal­leries, rather than one, de­voted to the V&A’s pho­tog­ra­phy col­lec­tion, which means there is now am­ple room to view the prints on dis­play in an ex­panded con­text that il­lu­mi­nates their pro­duc­tion. The most vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of this is the vast glass dis­play cases that house not just cam­eras, but early pho­tog­ra­phy books, man­u­als, note­books and pe­ri­od­i­cals as well as one given over to view­ing early stereo­scopic images. Most of the other changes made to these re­pur­posed Vic­to­rian pic­ture gal­leries are in­vis­i­ble to the eye, in­clud­ing the cli­mate con­trol tech­nol­ogy that pro­tects the prints.

Among the high­lights in the first gallery is a grid of photographs from the col­lec­tion of Chauncy Hare Town­shend, the 19th-cen­tury poet, clergyman and mes­merist who – along­side Prince Al­bert – was the only pri­vate English col­lec­tor of early prints. Among them are var­i­ous pic­to­rial ru­ral land­scapes, a stu­dio por­trait of Bri­tish bare knuckle box­ing cham­pion Tom Say­ers, and the strangely at­mo­spheric Study of Sheep, taken in 1854, by Camille Silvy, who moved eas­ily be­tween the stu­dio, the street and the coun­try­side in search of sub­ject mat­ter, and who was de­scribed by his more fa­mous con­tem­po­rary Nadar as a “zéla­teur” or en­thu­si­ast. Stranger still is an early por­trait of a slum­ber­ing hip­popota­mus by the ex­trav­a­gantly ti­tled Don Juan, Mario Isidro de Bor­bon, Count of Mon­tizón. The set­ting is Lon­don Zoo, where the hippo drew huge crowds, hav­ing been cap­tured on the banks of the White Nile and brought to Lon­don as a gift for Queen Vic­to­ria.

Later in the gallery, a seem­ingly con­cep­tual ar­range­ment of ob­jects – gloves, coins, nails, pieces of rope and fabric – turns out to be a bizarre still life also taken in Lon­don Zoo by Fred­er­ick Wil­liam Bond. It is ti­tled Con­tents of an Os­trich’s Stom­ach. Close to The Pen­cil of Na­ture is the first com­mer­cially pro­duced pho­tog­ra­phy book, one of Anna Atkins’s beau­ti­ful botan­i­cal stud­ies from 1854, Fes­tuca Ov­ina (Fes­cuie Grass). Atkins is now ac­knowl­edged as the first fe­male pho­tog­ra­pher and the first per­son to make a pho­tog­ra­phy book. Her cyan­otypes were cre­ated with­out a cam­era by plac­ing spec­i­mens di­rectly on to chem­i­cally treated pa­per and al­low­ing sun­light to cre­ate a pain­terly sil­hou­ette ef­fect.

Amid the many early photographs that nod com­po­si­tion­ally to paint­ings, there are some pre­scient mo­ments that seem al­most mod­ernist. Fred­er­ick Hol­land Day’s 1905 Head of a Girl, Hamp­ton, Vir­ginia, is a blurred por­trait of a young black girl that has a time­less qual­ity. Like­wise, the full-length self-por­trait by Ed­ward Ste­ichen from 1933, in which he poses as if on the thresh­old of a door­way, which is ac­tu­ally a tiny blank empty pic­ture frame on the wall be­hind him.

Ste­ichen is a def­i­nite pres­ence here, with a glass case hous­ing spreads from his ground­break­ing jour­nal Cam­era Work, pub­lished from 1903 to 1917. His strik­ing colour

por­trait of so­cialite and Van­ity Fair ed­i­tor Clare Boothe Luce dates from 1938, but looks as if it could have been taken just a few years ago. An even more sur­pris­ing ex­am­ple of early colour is an im­pres­sion­is­tic Am­s­ter­dam street scene from 1934 by Bernard Eil­ers, in which blurred shop lights are re­flected on a wet street. Elier’s at­mo­spheric im­age an­tic­i­pates the pain­terly style of Saul Leiter’s New York street photographs made two decades later.

Against all this in­ven­tion, the work in the sec­ond gallery seems al­most from a dif­fer­ent ex­hi­bi­tion. The high­light for me is the large grid of 30 street photographs by Mark Co­hen. His oddly com­posed, closeup images of chil­dren and teenagers in his home­town, Wilkes-Barre, Penn­syl­va­nia, glee­fully dis­rupt the usual tropes of street pho­tog­ra­phy. This is a dance of ges­tures and shapes, with fa­cial ex­pres­sions and skin tones caught in warm nat­u­ral colours. Co­hen’s style is so sin­gu­lar that these images add up to an ex­hi­bi­tion within an ex­hi­bi­tion.

It was also good to come upon a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally gritty street tableau by the elu­sive Gra­ham Smith, ar­guably the most gifted and cer­tainly the least known of a gen­er­a­tion of Bri­tish doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers work­ing in the 1970s and 80s. On a street in his home­town – South Bank near Mid­dles­brough

– in 1982, Smith asked a pass­ing cou­ple to pose. The man bal­ances shop­ping bags and boxes on a pram, while the woman holds a gar­ish paint­ing of Elvis Pres­ley. The ti­tle is What She Wanted and Who She Got. This is English gritty re­al­ism writ large, by turns caus­ti­cally funny and oddly melan­choly.

There is also a re­cently ac­quired se­ries of the late Linda McCart­ney’s work, the most in­ti­mate be­ing her por­traits of her fam­ily when they lived on the Mull of Kin­tryre in the early 70s. In one, Paul in a dress­ing gown bal­ances on a fence, while his son, James, jumps off a Land Rover and one of his daugh­ters crouches. It is a study of do­mes­tic or­di­nar­i­ness at a time when the ex-Bea­tle was in re­treat from his own myth.

This in­trigu­ing ex­hi­bi­tion cul­mi­nates with two com­mis­sions that use early art works from the V&A col­lec­tion as their con­cep­tual start­ing points. Thomas Ruff riffs on the ar­chi­tec­tural images of the Vic­to­rian sol­dier-pho­tog­ra­pher Lin­naeus Tripe for a se­ries of in­ter­ven­tions ti­tled Tripe/Ruff. Ruff has ma­nip­u­lated Tripe’s neg­a­tives and then blown up the prints so they be­come even more de­tailed. The re­sults are fas­ci­nat­ing in a cere­bral way – es­pe­cially Tripe’s painted-on clouds.

Pene­lope Um­brico’s in­or­di­nately slow-mov­ing video piece, 171 Clouds from the V&A on­line col­lec­tion, in­au­gu­rates the newly con­structed Light Wall. Um­brico has ex­tracted de­tails of clouds from the V&A’s ar­chive of paint­ings, dig­i­tally stitch­ing them to­gether to make a ver­ti­cal “art sky”.

How much you ap­pre­ci­ate both pieces will de­pend on your tol­er­ance for art about art, and it might be bet­ter to ap­proach Um­brico’s piece on a sep­a­rate visit. That aside, there is more than enough richly in­ven­tive work in the two main gal­leries to sus­tain sev­eral hours of slow look­ing. The Pho­tog­ra­phy Cen­tre at the V&A, Lon­don, opens on Fri­day.

The shot of Paul McCart­ney in his dress­ing gown is a study of do­mes­tic or­di­nar­i­ness

Gra­ham Smith called this shot What She Wanted and Who She Got

The hippo given to Queen Vic­to­ria; right, one of Thomas Ruff ’s dig­i­tal cre­ations

A por­trait by Fred­er­ick Hol­land Day; right, Con­tents of an Os­trich’s Stom­ach by Fred­er­ick Wil­liam Bond

Flee­ing the myth … Linda McCart­ney’s pic­ture of her fam­ily on the Mull of Kin­tyre

One of Her­bert Ge­orge Ponting’s ice images

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