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Exploring the past & present of photography at the V&A Photography Centre, London

STIR visits the newly opened galleries of the centre, and peeks into an immersive collection of photos and installations that narrate some of the most fascinating stories.

by Zohra Khan, Samta NadeemPublished on : May 26, 2023

Perhaps 20 years ago, we used to eagerly wait for a few dear photographs to arrive from the photo studio, once a special occasion got over. The photos became artefacts, closer to the form of a frozen memory that we kept for posterity. Cut to the past decade, the eager wait got replaced by one’s authority of seizing a moment right there, exactly as one wanted. Our smartphones gave us the privilege of easy personal acquisitions of our memories; the swiftness of the process however—of creating and deleting these moments in just a click as against a seemingly slow engagement with its tangible counterpart in the past—speak volumes about the times we are living in. At the newly opened galleries of V&A's Photography Centre, located in the facility’s Northeast Quarter in London, one is exposed to the 'then' and 'now' of photography, ways the medium has evolved in its making and engagement over the years, and where it goes from here. The space, for the first time, brings to the public over 600 works displayed across seven galleries—three of which opened in 2018. The second leg of the two-phase 570 sqm project, involving Birtish firms Purcell and Gibson Thornley Architects in the base-build and fit-out respectively, realises V&A's intent of restoring the architectural details of the 19th century galleries, while repurposing the space into a contemporary centre of photography. As part of a recent press tour of the museum, STIR visited the facility and engaged in thought provoking discussions to understand the intent of a physical photography museum in today's digital world.

Inside the gallery, <em>Photography 1840s – Now</em> | V&A | London | STIRworld
Inside the gallery, Photography 1840s – Now Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"Before it became a photography centre, it was a back of the house space used for education and storage. It was very different from how you view it today; the grandeur of these spaces was concealed and hidden when we came here,” Matt Thornley, co-founder of Gibson and Thornley Architects, shared with STIR at the press preview. The London-based architect and his team took over the reimaging of the space into state-of-the-art public galleries once the historic areas were upgraded by heritage and conservation firm Purcell. Thornley continued, “There was an ambition to make the spaces democratic and to make them relevant to young people in London. From the outset, we worked with the V&A curatorial team and a group of 16-24-year-olds, and through a series of workshops, identified where the barriers of entry were and how we could break them down.”

Within the centre, the display of photographic paraphernalia as well as people’s engagement with it, is presented in a chronological setup. Two of the three David Kohn-designed galleries that opened in 2018 and are rehung for the phase two unveil—The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Gallery and The Sir Elton John and David Furnish Gallery—are thematised as Photography 1840s – Now. This area, as the name suggests, peeks into the evolution of photography, and where it sits in the global landscape. Currently on display here is an intriguing array of artefacts under the showcase Energy: Sparks from the Collection, which examines the many kinds of energy in photography, both the hidden processes intrinsic to creating a picture, to subjects in front of a camera. Over 200 works are on display include some of the earliest photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot, Richard Avedon, Brassaï, Henri Cartier Bresson, Joana Choumali, Man Ray and Jo Spence. Several photographs harking back to different times flank the two walls of the gallery, demonstrating a quintessential need of energy for photographs to exist, whether it is the 'power generated by sunlight passing through a camera lens, triggered by the burst of a flash bulb, or forged by electricity caused by a microchip.' One of these galleries lets one experience the three-dimensional illusion of stereographs via a series of stereoscopes set up in the middle of the space. Stereographs are a form of virtual reality that gained prominence in 1850s. Composed of a pair of near-identical photos, when viewed together under the lens, present one of the early experiences of imagining oneself being in a place only by looking at it.

Photographic paraphernalia dating back to the 1840s explores the processes intrinsic to creating a picture | V&A | London | STIRworld
Photographic paraphernalia dating back to the 1840s explores the processes intrinsic to creating a picture Image: Courtesy of STIR

The third gallery of the seven gallery cohort, next to the aforesaid spaces, is the Meta Media Gallery. As per V&A, this gallery also known as the Digital Gallery, is dedicated to digital media, challenging definitions of what photography is, and generating questions around the use of photography today. “The aim is to lean into the moving and increasingly blurred edges of photography, considering the role of images in digital, visual, social and political cultures. This means that future displays in the Digital Gallery could include computer-generated imagery, projected film, animation, print photography, installation-based work, or a combination of different components, among other things,” mentioned Dr Catherine Troiano, lead of the digital programme for photography at the V&A, in an interview with STIR.

On view at this gallery is a digital commission by artist Jake Elwes. The installation is titled The Zizi Show (2020-2023), and its first iteration, as per Troiano who closely worked with Elwes on the project, “was commissioned by The New Real at the University of Edinburgh and The Alan Turing Institute as an online experience for Edinburgh International Festival (2021)." The work exposes and subverts the biases of artificial intelligence in recognising trans, queer, and other marginalised identities. Presented in the form of a deepfake drag cabaret, orchestrated dance videos of drag artists take over the gallery’s large-scale digital projection. Resistance, we observed, is deeply embedded in the artist's work, and we asked him what it means for him to present such a project in an institutional setup. He says, “I am very excited to be showing my work here. It's a really pressing and poignant moment for both drag and AI. It's also a terrifying time as my drag friends have literally fascists outside their shows at the moment. I think the question of work of institutions is always a complex one. A large part of it is actually the ethics of collaboration as well as the ethics of the drag artists being used in the AI because these AI systems are generally built without consent and in a really explosive, non-consensual way.”

  • British artist Jake Elwes' show at the Digital Gallery exposes and subverts the biases of AI in recognizing trans, queer, and other marginalized identities | V&A | London | STIRworld
    British artist Jake Elwes' show at the Digital Gallery exposes and subverts the biases of AI in recognising trans, queer, and other marginalised identities Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Jake Elwes, with his installation <em>The Zizi Show</em> set in the background  | V&A | London | STIRworld
    Jake Elwes, with his installation The Zizi Show set in the background Image: Courtesy of STIR
  • The installation features a virtual online stage showing deepfake bodies performing with songs | V&A | London | STIRworld
    The installation features a virtual online stage showing deepfake bodies performing with songs Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"For us, it's about how can we subvert this and retrain the technology as a queer performance tool and make sure that everyone is aware of how their data is being used, and that they are being paid for their data,” continued the British media artist, coder and producer. The installation features a virtual online stage showing deepfake bodies performing with songs; the figures are generated by neutral networks trained on a community of drag artists who were filmed by Elwes himself.

According to Elwes, during each act, audiences are invited to interact and play with which deepfake bodies perform with songs. At times this breaks down when the AI tries to conceive impossible positions or combines multiple different queer identities. Touching upon these failures, the artist refers to these moments as the ‘queer art of failure.' “In a way”, he says, “it shows the bias of the system in a really direct way.” Taking off from his interest in these glitches, we ask him if this knowledge helps him to figure out when and how something is failing, and what he thinks happens after the failure. “I think it goes directly into the artwork. […] Seeing these clear bodies disintegrate into the floor, I am hoping to provoke something from people,” he further mentions adding that a few universities including University of Edinburgh, Central School of Speech and Drama, and the University of Oxford have done little research projects around The Zizi Show.

Inside the gallery, <em>Photography and the Book</em> | V&A | London | STIRworld
Inside the gallery, Photography and the Book Image: © Thomas Adank

Further into the centre is the Kusama Gallery in the thematic, Photography and the Book, completed in the second phase of the project by Purcell and Gibson Thornley Architects. Putting a spotlight on photographic books, journals, magazines, and manuals, this flexible space features the Royal Photographic Society library and its extensive collection of books that lets one intimately experience photographic prints in different physical and digital formats. The space unpins the idea that books have been a vital medium of presenting and sharing photographs since 1843, when a photographic book first appeared, four years after the public announcement of the invention of photography.

A recurrent thread throughout the centre comes across as the intertwining of the public and private areas that create a rich and layered experience for the visitors. As per the architects, “Throughout the voluminous gallery spaces which follow new sweeping parquet floors and carefully curated lighting, complement the building’s historic shell and enhance the range of exhibits, while a sequence of archways connects the galleries and offers a range of aspects and vistas, which unfold as visitors journey through the space.”

Architecturally within the Photography and the Book gallery, to avoid loading to the original floors, the RPS collection lines the walls of the double height reading room via bespoke elements cantilevering from the gallery walls. Circulation within the gallery is accentuated through a mezzanine walkway; the passage featuring walnut burr lining and balustrades with clasped brass rods.

The library brings together both physical and digital tools of engagement; photographed here is a digital reading nook | V&A | London | STIRworld
The RPS library brings together both physical and digital tools of engagement; photographed here is a digital reading nook Image: © Thomas Adank

The library, as previously shared by Thornley, has been shaped out of the learnings of a collaboration between the architects, the V&A curatorial team, and a group of young photographers and creatives alike. Adding to this, Marta Weiss, V&A Senior Curator and Lead Curator of Phase two of the Photography Centre told STIR, “One of the things that as a curator we find frustrating when we have to show a book is that you can only have it open to one page, and we were aware that we have so many incredible books in this collection. So early on we were thinking about if we can have the book digitised and then one could page through it. The feedback we had from our co-design group was really that they wanted to get their hands on the real thing, and if they couldn't touch and feel it, then they were actually very happy to have a curator make the decision for them by bringing books in showcases where they’d just be told by the curator that here's an interesting page. So that really shifted our thinking around how we were going to present books." One addition to the centre’s future public programming and engagement that Weiss has got in the anvil is a handling trolley carrying photographs, negatives, albums, etc., for people who are more committed to the discipline, and not the casual visitor. “We do have a study room where researchers can come and request to see any photographs in the collection, and you don't have to be writing a PhD or needing to bring any qualifications or a letter of introduction. You can just make an appointment and come. So, it's very open,” she added.

I also think that even in the digital age, there's a lot of curiosity around photography's past and in wanting to understand where photography has come from. It’s a kind of a welcome antidote perhaps to how we consume most of our photographs on screens to be able to come to a physical place and experience physical photographs from throughout the history. – Marta Weiss
  • Inside the gallery, <em>Photography Now</em> | V&A | London | STIRworld
    Inside the gallery, Photography Now Image: © Thomas Adank
  • The two galleries of <em>Photoraphy Now</em> showcases recent acquisions of global contemporary photography, including special commissions | V&A | London | STIRworld
    The two galleries of Photography Now showcases recent acquisitions of global contemporary photography, including special commissions Image: © Thomas Adank
Marta Weiss, V&A Senio Curator of Photography, and Lead Curator of the Phase Two of the Photography Centre, during her special address at the recent press preview | V&A | London | STIRworld
Marta Weiss, V&A Senior Curator of Photography, and Lead Curator of the Phase Two of the Photography Centre, during her special address at the recent press preview Image: Courtesy of STIR

The Photography and the Book flows into The Parasol Foundation Gallery, also broadly called Photography Now. A combination of two galleries, this space is dedicated to showcasing recent acquisitions of global contemporary photography including works by Liz Johnson Artur, Sammy Baloji, Vera Lutter, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Vasantha Yogananthan. In addition, the galleries also bring special commissions where currently on display is a new body of work by Indian photographer Gauri Gill that delves into makeshift dwellings and its prevalent architecture constructed by local farmers on the outskirts of Delhi in India. Another key work is an anamorphic sculpture by French visual artist Noemie Goudal, which, as per V&A, brings photography off the wall, to explore both geological time and the nature of perception.

French visual artist Noémie Goudal's anamorphic sculpture at the centre | V&A | London | STIRworld
French visual artist Noémie Goudal's anamorphic sculpture at the centre Image: © Thomas Adank

The last gallery within the centre is an interactive space that intrigues visitor with a simple inquiry: what goes inside a camera? Aptly titled Inside the Camera, the gallery’s highlight is a walk-in Camera Obscura that demonstrates the optical phenomenon that is the basis of how all cameras work. In addition to this, the space also presents a recorded timeline of the evolution of cameras—from the Talbot box camera to slimline smartphones; while animations illustrate the inner workings of the devices.

  • A glimpse of the interactive gallery, Inside the Camera | V&A | London | STIRworld
    A glimpse of the interactive gallery, Inside the Camera Image: © Thomas Adank
  • The installation, Camera Obscura, looks into the evolution of cameras; the showcase includes bulky wooden cameras and those used in contemporary smartphones | V&A | London | STIRworld
    In the camera gallery, objects charting the evolution of photography, from the Talbot box camera to the iPhone hover within bespoke glass casesImage: © Thomas Adank

"Photography has existed as a physical medium for almost 200 years and V&A holds one of the world's best collections. We wanted to share that collection with people and therefore needed a physical space in which to do that," Weiss shared. Reflecting on our inquiry about the role of a physical photography centre in the digital age, she said, “I also think that even in the digital age, there's a lot of curiosity around photography's past and in wanting to understand where photography has come from. It’s a kind of a welcome antidote perhaps to how we consume most of our photographs on screens to be able to come to a physical place and experience physical photographs from throughout the history.”

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