For TC Grove, responsible for the photo collection of the London Victoria & Albert Museum in London around 1900, photography was primarily a visual encyclopedia. Very handy to document events, architecture or the other, real art in the museum. But not meant to be special yourself. When the French photographer Eugène Atget offered photographs in 1902 that he had made of ‘Le Vieux Paris’, Grove was only moderately interested. For 1 franc each, he wanted to buy a number. The stairwells that Atget had photographed in Parisian hotels, for example, but mainly because he thought it was such a fine example of architecture. For the exceptional quality of the image, he did not really have an eye, the special composition did not interest him like that. The photos of ‘Les Petits Environs de Paris’, where Atget 1, 50 francs before early (after all, he had to travel for them), Grove found simply too expensive. He managed to lower the price to 1.25 francs. In this way, 572 photos from Atget guided the museum collection.
Now auctioned for huge amounts
Atget’s photographs, posthumously published in Atget, Photographe de Paris, in 1930, have undergone huge sums of money at international auctions in recent decades, have since been included in photo collections of the Metropolitan and MoMA and are praised for their mysterious and disturbing quality – “as if they were crime scenes”, wrote the German critic Walter Benjamin.
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That changed status of photography, how it transformed from recording medium to art, is reflected in the renewed Photography Center of the V & A. The images that Atget made in the early twentieth century of the graceful staircases of the Paris Hotel de la Brinvilliers, the Hotel Seguier, and Hotel le Charron now hang here prominently on the wall, as a victory over the crookedness of Grove.
The Photography Center, two large, existing rooms on the first floor that were given a facelift, opens today with Collecting Photography: From Daguerreotype to Digital. The fact that V & A houses a veritable treasure trove of photography and is rightly known as the museum with one of the most important and extensive photo collections in the world, they already showed in previous overview exhibitions. The fact that last year’s half-million own objects – photographs, glass negatives, car chrome, cameras, books – another 300,000 were added from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, means that the collection is now even richer, wider, deeper. A number of these new acquisitions can be seen in the exhibition; one of the very first photographic images, for example, a heliogravure from 1827 by the Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, twelve years before the invention of photography by Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. Van Talbot has a whole showcase decorated, in which we see, among other things, his first calotypes and a number of self-clad cameras: small, square wooden boxes with a round hole where he mounted a lens; by Talbots wife called ‘mouse traps’, because he let them swing around the house everywhere on the floor.
In a full and festive overview of almost 180 years of photography, the big names from the canon of photography come by Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Horst P. Horst, Edward Steichen, and Gertrude Käsebier. In contemporary photography, a large presentation has been made of the thirty photographs from the True Color series(1970-1974) by the American street photographer Mark Cohen. He was one of the first to start photographing in color in the early 1970s, at a time when art photography had to be mostly black and white and the color was meant for advertising photography or family snapshots. Through this information on the accompanying text boards, the public is made clear how in the history of photography change ideas about what we think is beautiful and good. The curators’ choice to include the photographs of, among others, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and Martin Parr, works well next to this series – they use color in an art world in the 80s and 90s, in which it is now fully accepted.
Work of younger and relatively unknown photographers is also there; the British Mary McCartney shows intimate black and white photographs of women for mirrors in bathrooms. They are shown in a special display case, together with the photographs of her mother, Linda McCartney, whose work was given to V & A by Paul McCartney at the beginning of this year.
A special place was reserved for the German photographer Tomas Ruff (1958), who was allowed to go to the photo collection at the request of the museum. Ruff has been using a method for a while in which he does not make his own photographs but edits images of, for example, NASA or the internet. For his project Tripe / Ruff he chose nineteenth-century paper negatives from Linnaeus Tripe from India and Burma. His reinterpretations of those exotic photographs from a long time ago yield new, surprising images so that the viewer also sees the old images differently. With this series doing the same as what happens in the whole exhibition – by mixing old with new, through surprising combinations in a rich, clear presentation, we look again and differently at the images of then and those of today.