Issue #260  6/27/2023
V&A Photography Centre Completes Phase 2 Expansion

By Michael Diemar

The Bernd and Ronny Schwartz Gallery, part of phase one of the Photography Centre.
The Bernd and Ronny Schwartz Gallery, part of phase one of the Photography Centre.

This May 25th The Victoria & Albert Photography Centre, located in the northeast wing of the museum, reopened after having undergone a huge expansion, adding four galleries to the existing three. Phase one of the Centre opened in October 2018, and as I reported then in this newsletter, it had been preceded by a great deal of controversy. Not because of the Centre itself, but because of the transfer of some 400,000 objects, including around 312,000 from the Royal Photographic Society collection and from the National Media Museum Bradford to the V&A.

The announcement came in February 2016 and initially caused an absolute uproar. A councilor in Bradford described the decision as "an appalling act of cultural vandalism" and on March 6th, The Observer published an open letter, opposing the transfer, signed by 88 leading figures in art, photography and film, including David Hockney, Martin Parr and Don McCullin.

As it turned out, it was only the RPS collection that was being transferred. When I interviewed Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A for The Classic in spring of 2019, he commented that the whole thing could have been handled better, adding, "Some of the difficulty around it was really due to a misconception about exactly what it was that was being transferred and the fact that it was being transferred between two national museums. So it was not a collection that was being sold but it was moved without much public discussion. It was an approach to thinking about where the best location was for the collection and about putting the collection first. Finding a place for it that would allow it to flourish."

While there may still be some bad blood out there, many of those who were critical at the time have since conceded that the V&A has done wonders with the RPS collection and the Photography Centre. Since its opening in 2018, it has attracted three times as many visitors as expected. With the opening of phase 2, the Centre now has just over 1,000 square meters of exhibition space, making it the largest suite of galleries devoted to photography in the UK.

The four additional galleries are housed in what were formerly student classrooms and storage rooms for the museum's textiles. The rooms have been restored to their former glory, revealing vaulted ceilings and original timber paneling, previously covered in hessian. And a cleaner's cupboard has been turned into a walk-in camera obscura.

Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A.
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A.

The opening speeches were held by Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, and Marta Weiss, senior curator of photography at the museum. Hunt said, "The V&A has always been a pioneer in its support for photography. The medium was barely over a decade old when the V&A in 1852--with the enthusiasm of our founding director Henry Cole--embraced photography as an art form, becoming the first museum worldwide to collect, commission and exhibit photographs.

"These elegant galleries have been returned to their original purpose, beautifully restored for a 21st-century audience. What is more, the impact of these spaces will be felt right across the museum. Through research, teaching loans, touring exhibitions, programming and other sector-leading initiatives.

"The Photography Centre has been made possible thanks to the exceptional support of Sir Elton John and David Furnish, the Consumer Trust, the Byrne Schwartz Family Foundation, Miss Ruth Monica Parasol and the Parasol Foundation, Meta Media, the Shao Zhong Art Foundation and many other generous supporters. For over 170 years, this museum is engaged with the art of photography. Only with our opening of our new Photography Centre is the full range and depth of our collection on display."

Weiss said, "As photography plays an ever-increasing role in our lives, the Photography Centre will be more relevant than ever. We look forward to welcoming visitors to explore the medium's diverse histories and enjoy our world-leading collection.

“Energy: Sparks from the Collection”, the first display at the Centre.
“Energy: Sparks from the Collection”, the first display at the Centre.

"It's so exciting that after more than 170 years of championing photography, the V&A finally has a space worthy of its outstanding collection. This is truly a momentous occasion for photography at the V&A, as well as I think the broader photography scene in the UK and even internationally. We've created a home for photography, whose activities of research, education, publication, loans, touring exhibitions will extend far beyond the physical space. But in this physical space, visitors will be able to see one of the best and broadest collections of photography in the world. As they encounter photography on the walls, in books, as sculpture, and projected as moving images, they'll experience photography and its diverse histories in new ways and begin to understand its extensive impact on our lives."

The first display in the Centre is called "Energy: Sparks from the Collection", based on the concept that all photographs need some form of energy to exist, whether it's sunlight through a lens or electricity through a microchip, with works by Fox Talbot, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jo Spence, Vinca Peterson among others.

The Meta Media Gallery, devoted to digital media, showcases a new commission from British artist Jake Elwes called "The Zizi Show", described as "a deepfake drag cabaret", exploring the intersection of artificial intelligence and drag performance, unpacking the biases of the former.

The exhibition in the Parasol Gallery is curated by Fiona Rogers, former operating officer of Magnum, who was appointed the Parasol Foundation curator of women in photography last year, with work by British photographer Liz Johnson Artur and German artist Vera Latter, and with a series of striking cyanotype self-portraits by Peruvian photographer Tarrah Krajnak. Rogers was appointed to rebalance the collection, as only about 15% of the collection is by women.

The Kusama Gallery, devoted to photography and the book, housing the RPS library, with books for visitors to access.
The Kusama Gallery, devoted to photography and the book, housing the RPS library, with books for visitors to access.

The Kusama Gallery drew immediate praise. It's devoted to photography and the book, housing the RPS library, with books for visitors to access. There is also a display here, "How not to photograph a bulldog", based on manuals, plus access to the library database.

The next gallery features a large three-dimensional sculpture, "Giant Phoenix VI", by Noémie Goudal, and a 48-image series by Gauri Gill, showing informal architecture on the outskirts of Delhi.

In the final gallery, there's a display of cameras and mobile phones, and then the aforementioned camera obscura, developed with the British artist Richard Learoyd.

While the display of historical works, "Energy: Sparks from the Collection", is fine, it runs until April 20th next year, and with so many fine works in the collection, a faster turnover would have made sense. Or even better, group or solo exhibitions.

The transfer of the RPS collection to the V&A has led to a shift in the museum's acquisition policy. As Duncan Forbes, head of photography, commented afterwards, "We have almost everything that we need, and we continue to acquire via major gifts throughout the year. There's a lot of interest in contemporary photography. One of the things I have tried to do with the Centre was give the contemporary a much stronger presence."

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.