A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Main Entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a lot of work on show; I had gone however just to see an exhibition of photographs called “Island Stories” yet also visited another couple of rooms upstairs where the Recording Britain exhibition was being held.

Entrance to the Exhibition

I have some trouble finding the “Island Stories” exhibition. I assume I know which room in the V+A it is being staged but decide to check with the Information Desk. The man behind the counter informs me that there is no exhibition on but I see a likely brochure on the desk in front of him and find a reference to the display (it does not have the higher status of “exhibition” it seems); someone else is able to inform me that it is indeed in the gallery I had assumed it would be in. In the exhibition, there is a woman seated at one end to look after the place; I ask her a question about the exhibition and after bluffing for awhile, she admits to not knowing anything since it is her first day. Later in the day, when I want to find out the location of another “display”, I approach three people behind the information desk who look as though they might know but they are engaged in conversation and so do not see me; around the other side of the desk though, a young Scotsman is able to tell me exactly where to go and hands me a map to help me on my way.

Island Stories is a “display” (not sure what would make it an exhibition) of photographs from post-war Britain that are being shown in conjunction with a large exhibition of British Design. It focues on individual projects undertaken by the photographers which may centre around a particular place or be more widespread in the UK. The names of the photographers are well-known and most of them I have heard of before.

One of the photographers who is new to me is also one of my favourites in this exhibition. Grace Robertson was one of the few female photographers of her time; she contributed to Picture Post, a major photographic publication that has since ceased being printed. One of these photographs shows a group of women, about two dozen strong, standing and sitting outside a pub; almost all are smiling, not the forced smiles so often conjured up for the photographer, but obvious signs of exuberance from people who are enjoying themselves. Another note of humour is struck by the face of an elderly man peering out through the darkened glass of the pub behind them. One thinks of the heightened spirits of those who had lived through the war and rationing and were now starting to be able to enjoy life. The photograph is from a series made in 1954 called Mother’s Day Off and there are other images revealing the women at play; in one, a woman lifts her dress to reveal her bloomers.

Entrance to the “Island Stories” exhibition

On entering the gallery ( can one call it that or should it be referred to as the “display space” or even simply “room” !?), one is confronted by the photograph of a Union Jack which has been painted on to the wall of a house. The photograph balances this in it’s composition that includes surrounding buildings. This striking photograph, very much a document, has been made by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane and is part of their “Folk Archive: Contemporary Popular Art from the UK”. On the other side of this wall that stands directly opposite the entrance, is another of their photographs, this time of a crop circle. Their work is also included in an accompanying display called “Recording Britain” which I visit later upstairs.

Peter Fraser has three photographs from 2002. These are strongly coloured prints made inside the lab of a university physics department, minute vistas blown up to fascinate.

Mark Edwards has two of the largest photographs in the exhibition. Made with a large format 10 by 8 camera, they are barely distinguishable from each other and show a motorway verge with a bank and line of trees. The photographer notes that after The Forestry Commission, The Highways Agency are one of the biggest planters of trees. An interesting fact but the photos themselves look dull and one asks what one is being asked to consider here. The images are from a series called Stories Yet to be Told and were made in 2005.

Inside the Island Stories exhibition

Raymond Moore (1920 to 1987) is a photographer about whose work, the captions that accompanying this display of 70 photographs, comments “beneath the surface appearances there might be something going on”. The black and white photographs seen here are dark and brooding to my mind although they are images of ordinary scenes from the United Kingdom; details are however used to give them depth. In one, a painted car stands alone with “sex” written in large letters on it’s side. The car park in which it is situated is otherwise empty but for the strong white lines that mark out the individual parking places which are in turn mirrored by the lines drawn on adjoining tennis courts. A large arrow on the tarmac is painted near the entrance and nearby the word “in” can be seen; the arrow points to an individual who stands with his back to the camera, holding a cap in the hand of an outstretched arm. Is this some kind of comment on the sexual condition? There seems to be no clear meaning. Moore himself spoke of “the uncommonness of the common place”.

The next group of photographs are by Don Mac Cullin, a personal project he made of coal workers in the 1960’s that was made to show hardship.

Roger Mayne has photographs from his Southam Street series (1956 to 1961) one of which is very well known, ambiguously showing a young woman, standing but not posing, who looks like she might be dirty yet still has beauty. The other photographs are of children playing in the street, something they are seldom able to do nowadays.

Another photographer featured that I had not heard of is Elizabeth Juda who used to contribute to The Ambassador magazine. She studied under the Bauhaus artist Lucie Moholy and her work reveals a distinctly modernist approach.

I have not heard of the photographer Maurice Broomfield either. He has perhaps the largest collection of images in this show; they are of industry, not from a detached point of view but often revealing wonderful designs within the various scenes of industrial instruments that he has photographed. His work echoes that of Peter Fraser whose work is in another corner of the room, diagonally opposite.

a group of photos by Bill Brandt

There are 6 of Bill Brandts photographs; all are nudes but in some landscape is visible in the background. These are highly imaginative works in which the body itself becomes like a landscape with the contours of a human form seen close up.

At the same time as the Island Stories display, there was another upstairs called “Recording Britain” that was a mixture of paintings and photographs. I bought the catalogue, out of interest and as a way to support the museum; it is also interesting to see the combination of painting and photographs hung together. The following is taken from an essay in the catalogue entitled “Facts and Emotion : a photographic survey” by Martin Barnes.

John Piper, an artist of the time which was during the 2’nd World War, wrote that although photography is an excellent cataloguer, it has a “dead-eye” for “It can suggest and illustrate; it can never describe”. The idea that photography can only convey the factual and never the spirit or feeling of landscape was prevalent at that time and is still a view upheld by a few. However, Barnes asks whether this might be the result of an inability of the painter to accept the ambiguity of a medium that merges both the mechanical and the human. The painter is likely to be unaware that photography necessitates viewing point, framing, type of photographic process, an intelligent eye behind the lens; nowadays, the “inherent blurring of illustration and emotion, embracing the creative intersection between fact and fiction”.

Early photographers made interesting comments. The following is from Frederick Evans, a nineteenth century architectural photographer, who wrote … “Try for the record of an emotion rather than a piece of typography. Wait until the building makes you feel intensely, in some special part of it or other; then try and analyse what gives you that feeling … and then see what your camera can do towards reproducing that effect.” He mentions technical correctness yet also delight in detail, tasteful framing, tonal awareness, an understanding of the effect of light on form, ability to capture a moment of time; one might also consider not just the photograph but a body of photographs working as a sequence. A good photograph can transform the way we see something.

Photography contains a certain nostalgia since whatever it records will pass!

paintings and photographs from the “Recording Britain” exhibition

Barnes’ essay continues to document the various photographers that have recorded Britain. There have been a number and they have worked independently without government support and yet often patriotic, more interested in the historical than the contemporary. Among these photographers were Benjamin Brecknell Turner (1815-94) who photographed many of the subjects that painters covered and followed the dictum of “feeling through the eye” yet also provided “detail, texture, qualities of light”. Brecknell recorded scenes of rural life that were soon to become history yet he turned a blind eye to developments such as that of the railways that were being built at this time.

A number of photographers including Roger Fenton contributed to a book called Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain (1862), the introduction of which saw photography starting to assert itself in relation to painters; “The reader is no longer left to suppose himself at the mercy of the imaginations, the caprices or deficiencies of artists, but to have before him the genuine presentiment of the object under consideration.” Glass plate negatives further enhanced detail.

Francis Frith (1822-98) was a photographer who photographed many places around the UK as all as a few abroad such as the pyramids in Egypt; he tended to picture scenes that were tourist destinations as this is what made him money. Henry Dixon (1820-1930) was another photographer who worked for The Society of Photographing Relics of Old London (SPROL); he “combined technical ability, historical knowledge and sensitivity to the rapidly changing face of the urban landscape”. Long exposures necessary to record these images tend not to show many people and the images have been described as melancholic since “the quietude of the place exercises a most depressing feeling”. Personally, I experience these photos as having a more sublime quality since they are expressive of timelessness.

The National Photographic Record Association (NPRA) was a project managed between 1897 and 1910 by Benjamin Stone, a Birmingham MP, who encouraged a photographic survey whose “typical subjects included parish churches, civic buildings and curiosities of local architecture, country lanes, schools, mills, prisons, village stocks, market places, age-old customs and locations noted for their associations with historical events or literary mention”. Stone is best remembered for his photographs of old customs such as the Corby Pole Fair among many others. The NPRA collection is now lodged with the V+A in boxes relating to counties; there are some 5000 prints in the collection.

Although photography tended to be scorned as the artist “was being ousted by a man with a little black box – the photographer” as Herbert Read wrote in The Listener, there were those who recognised it’s accuracy as a recording device and that photography involved much more than pressing a button. There were furthermore, photographers such as Bill Brandt who managed to make accurate records while also making an artistic statement, combining social realism with Surreal overtones.

Photograph recording the Britain of the past are unique as objects that reveal an entirely different way of working such as in prints produced by different chemical means yet they also contain a wealth of fascinating detail. As Barnes writes, “we may benefit from an understanding of the photographically mediated social and historical evidence the images contain”.

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