V and A Photography Centre opens 12 October 2018

11 October 2018

Industry news

© Will Pryce

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, an honorary member of the Royal Photographic Society, and patron of the Victoria and Albert Museum has formally opened the museum's new Photography Centre. 

The world’s first photographic experiments and earliest cameras, works by pioneering female photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron, Agnes Warburg, Madame Yevonde and Cindy Sherman, pictures by 20th-century greats Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Brassaï, Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn. Contemporary works by Martin Parr, Sian Bonnell, Mary McCartney, Peter Funch, Cornelia Parker and Hiroshi Sugimoto, all join newly commissioned works by Thomas Ruff and Penelope Umbrico in the Centre which opens to the public on Friday, 12 October.

Designed by David Kohn Architects, phase one of the Photography Centre more than doubles the space dedicated to photography at the V&A, spanning four new galleries. It opens with the major display Collecting Photography: From Daguerreotype to Digital, beginning in the newly named The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Gallery (formerly Gallery 100). The show explores photography as a way of ‘collecting the world’, from the medium’s invention in the 19th century to the present day.

Drawn from the V&A’s collection of over 800,000 photographs and showcasing work from the Royal Photographic Society collection which was transferred to the museum in 2017, the display highlights some of the most exciting contemporary photography being created today. It also shows seminal prints by pioneers William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron and Roger Fenton, alongside negatives, camera equipment, photographic publications and original documents to tell a broader story about the history of international photography. 

In The Modern Media Gallery (formerly Gallery 99), a frequently changing selection of new acquisitions, a ‘Light Wall’ for displaying screen-based photography and a ‘Dark Tent’ projection area complete the space.

© Will PryceTo mark the opening, the V&A has commissioned two internationally-renowned artists to produce major new works. German photographer Thomas Ruff, known for taking a critical and conceptual approach to photography, has created a monumental series inspired by Linnaeus Tripe’s 1850s paper negatives of India and Burma, held in the V&A’s collection. Digitally reinterpreting photographs made over 160 years ago, Ruff gives Tripe’s important and haunting images a new context, emphasising their hidden details and resurrecting them with spectacular new life. 

Alongside Thomas Ruff’s new series, American artist Penelope Umbrico has created 171 Clouds from the V&A Online Collection, 1630 - 1885, 2018, the first work to feature on the Light Wall. Umbrico works mostly with images she finds on the internet, presenting them in ways that reveal the fluidity of digital photography. For this video, she sifted through the V&A paintings collection online and extracted details of clouds. The work explores the transition from fleeting clouds to material paint, and then from digital code to physical screen.

Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, said: “I’m delighted to open the V&A’s new Photography Centre. The transfer of the historic Royal Photographic Society collection provided the catalyst for this dramatic reimagining of photography at the museum. Our collection – established by the V&A’s visionary first director Henry Cole - now seamlessly spans the entire history of photography, telling the story of the medium from the daguerreotype to the digital. Our new Photography Centre provides a world-class facility to re-establish photography as one of our defining collections. In an era when everyone’s iPhone makes them a photographer, the V&A’s Photography Centre explores and explains the medium in a compelling new way.

Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A, said: “The new Photography Centre brings to life some of the V&A’s most beautiful original picture galleries and provides a permanent home for one of the finest and most inspiring collections of photography in the world. The spaces and facilities allow visitors to access, explore and enjoy photography in its many forms. The Photography Centre encompasses more than a new gallery space. Beyond its walls lies an associated programme of research, digitisation, learning activities, publications, exhibitions, access to items in stores, and collaborations with other UK and international partners. Photography is one of our most powerful forms of global communication, and I’m thrilled that we can contextualise the past and present of this powerful medium in new and exciting ways.

© Will PryceVisitors enter the new Photography Centre through a spectacular installation of over 150 cameras spanning 160 years. Nearby, an interactive camera handling station offers visitors an understanding of how photographers view the world through their equipment. Inside the gallery, focused sections look at a series of collections and collectors. This includes an important group of William Henry Fox Talbot’s cameras and prints; 1850s fine art photographs collected by Chauncey Hare Townshend, friend of Charles Dickens; Pictorialist photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn’s collection of photographs by his predecessors and contemporaries; and a selection of some of the most significant photojournalism of the 20th century collected by Magnum Photos’ UK agents, John and Judith Hillelson. A stereoscope viewer gives an immersive 3-D experience of Crystal Palace alongside some of the first photographs ever taken of Japan.

Over 600 objects made across Europe, the US, Africa, the Middle East and Asia have been brought together for Collecting Photography: From Daguerreotype to Digital. The display features images by early colour photography pioneers, Agnes Warburg, Helen Messinger Murdoch and Nickolas Muray, and recent acquisitions by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cornelia Parker, Linda McCartney, Marco Breuer, Pierre Cordier and Mark Cohen. A ground-breaking botanical cyanotype by Anna Atkins, images by the world’s first female museum photographer, Isabel Agnes Cowper, and motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge, join photographs by some of the world’s most influential modern and contemporary photographers, including Eugène Atget, Man Ray, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Edward Steichen, Cindy Sherman and Martin Parr.

The Photography Centre also features the Dark Tent, a flexible multimedia projection and lecture space inspired by 19th-century photographers’ travelling darkrooms. Here, specially commissioned films revealing early photographic processes, including the daguerreotype, calotype and wet collodion process, are screened, along with a slideshow of rarely-seen magic lantern slides revealing the first attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1921 and 1922, among other photographic projections.

The opening of the V&A Photography Centre kick-starts a month-long Photography Spotlight across the V&A. Highlights include talks by leading photographers Mary McCartney, Rankin and Chris Levine; the premiere of the collaborative performance piece Last Evenings by artist Garry Fabian Miller and musician and composer Oliver Coates; a screening of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Love Cecil; and special performances, events, courses, workshops and a photography-themed Friday Late on 26 October.

Situated in the V&A’s North East Quarter, the Photography Centre reclaims the beauty of three original 19th-century picture galleries. It is part of the V&A’s FuturePlan development programme to revitalise the museum’s public spaces through contemporary design and the restoration of original features. A second phase of the Photography Centre, planned to open in 2022, will expand it further, with ambitions to include a teaching and research space, a browsing library and a studio and darkroom for photographers’ residencies.

The Photography Centre is supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, Modern Media, Shao Zhong Art Foundation and many other generous donors. It opens to the public on Friday, 12 October 2018. Admission is free. 

Images: © Will Pryce