Europe’s top photography collection now has a permanent gallery charting the dawn of photography to now

At the Victoria and Albert Museum, a single curator, Mark Haworth-Booth, has developed one the four greatest collections in the world



The Victoria and Albert Museum has a talent for hiding its many great treasures under bushels. It is one of the four greatest collections in the world, with the Metropolitan and Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Getty in Los Angeles, and yet it has taken until now for it to open a permanent photography gallery—this despite the fact that in 1858 it organised the First International Exhibition of Photography.

The curator who has single-handedly been responsible for its development this century is Mark Haworth-Booth, whose eyes were opened by the 1970 exhibition of Bill Brandt’s photographs at the Hayward Gallery, where he realised that photography was not just a technique but an expression of the imagination.

In 1973 he was appointed to the Circulation Department of the V&A whose job it was to send examples of inspiring art to regional British museums and art schools. It was, also, however, a particularly lively place, the only part of the V&A in the Seventies to be interested in contemporary art.

That same year, it allowed Mr Haworth-Booth to put on the first showing in Europe of the now famous dust-bowl photos that belong to the US Farm Administration Service, followed in 1975 by an exhibition of twentieth-century landscapes selected by Bill Brandt. Mr Haworth-Booth also began to buy from contemporary, often now famous, photographers at prices that make today’s collectors drool: Bernhard and Hille Becher, Roger Mayne, Don McCullin, Hamish Fulton and so on.

In 1977, the forward-thinking director, Roy Strong, added photography to the remit of the Prints and Drawings Department, and Mr Haworth-Booth became its curator. His first task was to take over the hundreds of historic photographs that were vested in the library—one must not forget that in the 1850s Roger Fenton, the first ever war photographer, was also the museum’s object photographer.

Mark Haworth-Booth’s next job was to bring the history of photography as an art form up to date through acquisitions. A lot of gap-filling took place as well as bold purchases of the radical avant-garde, such as the huge “Oval Court” by Helen Chadwick, made in 1986 and bought two years later.

The history of this collection is the subject of the first exhibition in the new gallery which has been financed by Canon, the camera makers, as part of Photo 98, the nation-wide celebration of photography and the electronic image. Mark Haworth-Booth spoke to The Art Newspaper about the new space and about reactions to his accompanying book , Photography, an independent art: photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum 1839-1996 (The Art Newspaper No. 75 November 1997, p.35).

How important has Canon’s support been to the gallery?

Mark Haworth-Booth: We decided to have the gallery in this space about three years ago. The first conversation with Canon was in May of last year. The contract, worth £1.2 million over five years, was signed five months ago. So it’s all happened quite quickly. The budget is mostly going to Education and Marketing; also some exhibition costs, like framing. Then, of course, it has made possible the publication of the Gallery Guide.

I’ve always felt we ought to have a separate gallery, ever since I joined the Circulation Department in 1970—the same year I first went to New York and saw the Museum of Modern Art. Now, a mere twenty-eight years later, with a little help from Canon, Voila! Here we are!

The V&A’s public exhibition space has been reduced by about one-third to make this permanent photography gallery. We’re delighted with it being so accessible, along one of the main arteries on the ground floor.

The layout is well articulated, very clean and spare.

Yes, it is spare As these people were extraordinarily fastidious about the way they presented their photographs in exhibitions, it’s rather appropriate. I hung this with our designer, Brian Griggs, who designed the whole space for us in such a way that all the walls in the gallery can be moved. I laid things out, as a historian would, and then I asked his opinion. He was terrifically good because he sees thing purely visually, without knowing the story. Both things have now come together and it’s much better for that. Each room will have an explanatory text of about fifty words, condensing each chapter in the book, and each photograph will have a label like this, at an angle to the wall, with just the basic details but no interpretation.

Are there any pictures here which are not in your book?

They were all in the book, but some of them were smaller; they were illustrations rather than plates, whereas here you can see them as they are, the actual size. It’s lovely to have so much space, so that the photographs come into their own, as objects. There’s something very intriguing about the minor art of the hang. I would never have thought that we would end up with Atget next to Paul Strand; in fact, they are the deepest toned pictures in the section and work really well together.

What has been the reaction to the book?

Very good. However, one review actually criticised my book for showing things with which, it said, museum goers would be perfectly familiar. They were referring to Julia Margaret Cameron’s, “The dream”, 1869. But what I was doing in my book, by quoting the newly discovered letters, which were about the degradation of her negatives, and the fact that you can see this in the web of very fine lines on the veil in the photograph, was using a picture which may be familiar to many museum goers but showing it in a new light, so that we now know what this meant to her.

Naturally, a selection of 100 photographs from a collection of 300,000, cannot be more than the tip of the iceberg. Do you have many other examples of her work?

Yes, over 350. The great thing is that people still give them to us today, which is extremely generous. Curiously enough the same criticism was made of the Muybridge, as being too familiar, but I don’t think this particular one, of the dancing couple (fully clothed, unlike most of “Animal locomotion”) is at all familiar to most people. (As a subscriber, the Museum acquired a complete set on publication in 1887). Also, of course, my audience is not exclusively museum goers; I’m trying to reach people who may never have been to a museum. This is, actually, the only place in Europe where you can see a History of Photography.

Is the conservation and storage of the collection a problem?

Well, it is a problem because photographs are quite unlike anything else; you need special mounts and so on. The great thing about our collection is that it has been treated reasonably well since the 1850s.

This exhibition uses the entire space, but we understand that in future there will be a semipermanent display alongside featured shows.

Yes, exactly. It’s a bit like that this time around, because, as you’ll see later on, “The oval court” by Helen Chadwick is, as it were, a special show, even thought it is part of my book. We acquired it only two years after it was first shown at the ICA and it is, I think, the defining work in our collection. Again, one of the nice things about this hang is that we see John Deakin’s portrait of Francis Bacon just before the Helen Chadwick installation. Helen was going to be an archaeologist until she saw a Bacon show and changed her mind about what she was going to do. It’s an incredible piece, such painstaking work, like a seamstress stitching together each detail into a seamless whole.

The last section, like the book, is all colour photography. Is it just the technology, or do you think this is the way things are going?

I was accused of being politically correct in this last section. My point was that photography has been used for political purposes. In the post-television age, photography takes a different role and becomes radicalised: it questions values and promotes contentious ones, mocks the conventions of fashion and celebrity photography, it even questions the medium itself, as in the David Hockney. As to colour; I get very tired of unthinking black and white.

How often will the exhibits change and what do you have planned after the opening exhibition?

The first show is slightly different from the others in that it will only last six months. After that the History will last for one year and the special exhibition for six months. So, that’s three shows a year which is about the limit for a small team, like ours. It’s a steady turnover of the collection, basically.

We are still working with Cartier Bresson, choosing the prints for his show, this autumn: photographs from the Americas and Asia, fifty-five prints—some of his greatest photographs were taken in India, China, Mexico and the US—which will round out the series of homages commemorating his ninetieth birthday. The next history will also start in November, selected by my assistant, Charlotte Cotton.

Then, next April, we are having Lady Hawarden because, finally, there will be a proper book on her work, to be published by Aperture. Marina Warner is writing the introduction and the text is by a very good scholar called Virginia Dodier who specialises in those years. I’ll write something about the resurrection of her work. Of course, the V&A has the collection, 775 photographs which her granddaughter gave us in 1939, so we have an obligation to publicise the book.

All of this seems like a pretty full and varied programme. Have you anything else planned at present beyond that?

After that we will have an exhibition about the Sixties, from three different archives. They have all been forgotten, the photographers died young, so we are rehabilitating them, making new prints from their negatives. That’s been done by Charlotte Cotton. All the time we will be showing a history of photography as well; it is part of our duty.

For the year 2000 we are working on an exhibition called Photography and Time. Time is critical to photography and this show will elucidate different aspects of which there are many, obviously. We have just been given seventy photographs by the children of Harold Edgerton, the man who did all those stroboscopic pictures of people kicking footballs, golf swings and the famous frozen milk drop, like a coronet, plus we have the whole of Muybridge to draw on, so we have plenty of things to show.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘From the dawn of photography to now'