A first-rate history of photography, the V&A museum and its pioneering collecting

Collecting oneself—and a few others besides in the Victoria & Albert Museum Photographic Department


Top of the list this year and recommended for being accessible, entertaining and informative is Mark Haworth-Booth’s latest, Photography: an independent art: photographs from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1839-1996. Both a history of photography and a guide to appreciating fine photographs, it is also a detailed and remarkably well written account of photography’s changing status as a collectable medium. The story continues through to the present, concluding with an overview of contemporary international photographs.

The Curator of Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum gives us a rattling good tour of the 100 pictures he has selected from their collection, one of the earliest in existence, dating back to the foundation in 1856 of a new kind of museum, which concerned itself with the arts of everyday life and with a large popular audience.

The learned lecture takes in the origins of the museum, the history of photography and the formation of the collection, from 1839 to the present, with seldom a dull moment. We learn of the great names, technical achievements and aesthetic standing of a succession of pioneers, who in 1858 participated in the first International Exhibition of Photography at the South Kensington Museum (as it was then called) under the founding director Henry Cole, plus who and how and why and what was commissioned or collected. The chapters each advance this particular telling of the history of photography by means of chunks of readable background information weaving all three strands (collection/museum/photography) together.

The tour proceeds at a cracking pace. Mr Haworth-Booth hardly falters, going forward like an agreeable and unbelievably well informed uncle who proudly shows us round his favourite items in the V&A collection in a series of catchily titled, well structured chapters that encompass successive periods, methods and attitudes.

From the opening sentence of his introduction Mr Haworth-Booth sets the agenda: “This is a book about the art of photography.” Chapter headings give a good idea of the general thrust. Starting with “The new art”, which establishes an account of the origins of photography, next we are skilfully guided through “A vibrant populist enterprise”, coincidentally the raison d’être of the museum itself, and of so many others that have followed, as if from the same mould. This describes how the new medium was embraced by a new kind of museum whose founder, Sir Henry Cole (himself an amateur photographer) began to collect photographs as an art form from the very inception of the museum.

Chapter three, “All the world under the subjugation of art” contains a quote from the Journal of the Photographic Society of 21 July 1858, worth repeating for its hilarious yet prescient, utterly Victorian, Imperialist missionary grandeur: “In a few years time there will be photographic stations spread all over the a short time all the world will be brought under the subjugation of art.”

This period comment on the work of the corps of non-commissioned officers of the Royal Engineers whom Charles Thurston Thompson, the first in a long line of dedicated museum photographers, was commissioned to teach by the War Department, underlines an initiative that was itself another global first for Britain.

“The cosmopolitan archive” deals with the reorganisation of the collection under T.C. Grove, who had been appointed Assistant Keeper in charge of Photographs in 1897, produced a Report on the Photograph Section in 1908 and estimated that the Art Library, as distinct from the Science Museum’s impressive collection of pictures and paraphernalia (which was hived off to the other side of Exhibition Road and later became the core of the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, Bradford) counted with some 200,000 photographs: “The collection includes examples of almost every kind of photographic reproduction, and in this manner it illustrates the history of the art of photography” wrote Grove.

The chapter covers developments that eventually made room for Pictorialists like Steichen and other members of Stieglitz’s American Photo-Secession, Atget the precursor of “Natural” photography and the advent of Modernism through the work of Paul Strand, Man Ray and others, fomented by advances in photo-mechanical reproduction, between the turn of the century and the eve of World War II, together with an account of the establishment of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and of the two-way traffic between MoMa and the V&A, all effected in the interest of cosmopolitanism.

In “Being contemporary”, the occurence of World War II, which led to the evacuation to deep caves in Wales of the V&A collections, is cited as the reason for the hiatus in collecting activity between the late 30s, the reopening of the (empty) museum in 1945 and a flurry of activity initiated in the 60s which seeks to make good previous omissions and continues to access contemporary work to this day.

This covers the period between 1951 and the early 70s (coincidentally it was in 1972 that the author was appointed Curator of Photography), addresses the work of such modern ikons as Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bernhard and Hilla Becher, as well as Roger Mayne, Ida Kar, Gerry Cranham, Don McCullin, Val Wilmer and Hamish Fulton, together with an account of the failure to acquire the Gernsheim Collection and the modernist/populist activities of the Circulation department

An interesting comment emerges on the role of the media: “When television assumed the dominant role in news and mass-information, photography again became visible, exhibitable and collectable.”

“The national collection of the art of photography”, illustrates and discusses the work of Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, John Deakin, Raymond Moore, David Goldblatt, Chris Killip, Lewis Baltz, Masahisa Fukase and Dany Lyon; moving into colour with William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld, amongst other.

In the final chapter “Fond wrestlers with photography”, Mr Haworth-Booth rounds out his three stranded account of the museum, the collection and the history of photography with an overview of contemporary, international photography including artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Helen Chadwick, Karen Knorr, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Maud Sulter, Nan Goldin, Annette Lemieux, Richard Billingham, David Hockney, Gabriel Orozco and Adam Fuss: “Photography is now used for anything artists want to represent—and the artists may represent anything.”

Though limited to 100 out of the 300.000 photographs in the collection this book succeeds as a succinct, well focused introduction to one of the major collections of the art of photography. The large plates offer an opportunity to savour much of the subtle tonality of early photographs, give an idea of the print values of work produced on silver gelatine once materials became standardised during the golden age of mechanical photo-reproduction and usher in the lushness of recent and contemporary work in colour.

Photography: an independent art seldom talks down to the reader but deals squarely with the subject in a thoughtful, accessible and entertaining way. This is a landmark book which goes much of the way towards making amends for the relative neglect of serious, intelligent and committed photography in the very country that contributed most to the invention of the medium.

Mark Haworth-Booth, Photography: an Independent Art, Photographs from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1839-1996, (V&A Publications, London, 1997) 208 pp, 25 b/w ills, 75 col. ills, £30, $39.50 (hb only) ISBN 1851772049

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Collecting oneself—and a few others besides'