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Something That I’ll Never Really See: Contemporary Photography from the V&A
Bengaluru - 23 January - 27 February 2011
 

A Curator’s note
Something That I’ll Never Really See: Contemporary Photography from the V&A

From the beginnings of the 1990s, until the present, photography has taken centre stage in the world of contemporary art as never before. Throughout this period, the Victoria and Albert Museum has been at the forefront of collecting the medium. This exhibition, drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, includes some of the most innovative works created during a pivotal moment in photographic history. The selection shows a broad range of styles by both internationally well-known names and emerging talents.

The recent popularity of photography within contemporary art can be understood by looking at several interrelated changes in the field. Practitioners increasingly have understood, with growing sophistication, their position in the history of the medium. Their works have become aligned with the concerns of contemporary fine art practice, focusing more on the illustration of an idea rather than on demonstrations of skill or mere aesthetic pleasure. On one hand, increasingly prevalent digital technology has allowed innovative methods of production and dissemination. On the other hand with the advent of digital technologies traditional chemistry-based techniques have been newly appraised. This has given added value to the craft of photographic printing.

Private collectors, galleries and art fairs have created and sustained a vibrant market. A new type of private collector has emerged, typically younger than the connoisseur-collector of more traditional art forms such as painting or fine prints. The new photograph collector is perhaps less daunted by photography and is drawn by the modernity, accessibility and familiarity of photographic images. Fears that photography is a medium of mass reproduction devalued by its multiplicity have been diminished through a market of limited edition prints.

Since the late 1980s, overwhelmingly, the size of photographic prints has become much larger. On the whole, these large prints are intended for exhibitions rather than portfolios or books. They are able to ‘hold the wall’ and compete with the impact and scale of other works of modern art. Colour printing has also become the dominant choice. Big colour photographs, often necessarily sent out to be processed at a commercial lab, suit the large white spaces usually set aside for contemporary art while allowing the viewer to become engrossed in the image and its details. However, some works are purposefully small in scale, or use traditional black and white processing. This may be to chime with the intimate subject matter or to draw attention to the traditions of fine printing by hand.

Photography has also always looked good on the printed page. In fact the wider dissemination of photographic art has often been in the first instance through books rather than prints made for exhibition. Photography also works particularly well when seen in series, and books best facilitate this kind of viewing. Publishers and writers have produced informative and visually seductive books in recent years that reinforce collecting and scholarship. Meanwhile museums continue to stage larger and more frequent exhibitions featuring contemporary photography and to build archives of photographs. Throughout these activities an increased awareness of the exciting and complex aesthetic, historical, and cultural positions of the photographic image has emerged. Photography is flourishing.

Contemporary photographers, or ‘artists using photography’, subtly challenge and utilize photography’s traditional genre distinctions such as fine art, science, fashion, advertising, documentary, the record picture and the snapshot. Apparently ‘straight’ documentary images are in fact elaborately staged; fashion photographs draw on the styles of documentary; and works of fine-art resemble scientific imaging.

The Victoria and Albert Museum began collecting the art of photography at its foundation in the 1850s. It now houses the national collection of the art of photography in the UK, one of the largest and most important collections in the world. Since the early 1990s the focus has been particularly on acquiring contemporary photography. The Museum’s first gallery dedicated solely to exhibiting photography opened in 1998. Many of the pieces were shown shortly after acquisition at the V&A photography gallery and have never again been seen in exhibitions elsewhere. This exhibition provides the first opportunity to examine some of the major works acquired in the last ten years and brings them together for the first time.

Photography commands great pathos with its ability to freeze time and place. Ultimately, it makes us aware of our inability to witness everything we might wish to during our own comparatively fleeting lives. Yet it has always had an enigmatic relationship with the ‘real’ world that it seems to depict. One of its most compelling aspects is its creative capacity to tangle fact with fiction. A photograph is always a translation of reality seen from the physical and conceptual standpoint of the person creating the image, as well as from that of the viewer. What I perceive through my eyes cannot be the same as what is registered in the camera. In this way – though it sounds paradoxical – photographs allow me the opportunity to observe something that I’ll never really see.

Martin Barnes
Senior Curator, Photographs
Victoria and Albert Museum

 

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