The Victoria and Albert Museum, formerly South Kensington Museum, began collecting photographs in the mid-nineteenth century. Today, long after the first photographs entered the collection in 1852, the museum holds over 800,000 of them, and still counting. The newly opened Photography Centre traces the history of photography from its early pioneers until the present day.
Thomas Ruff – ‘Linnaeus Tripe’ is a monumental special commission bridging the old and the new. German photographer Thomas Ruff created this series working with photographs taken by Linnaeus Tripe – a Victorian British Army Captain stationed in South Asia. Photographs from India and Burma (Myanmar) taken by Tripe in 1850s were of very high quality, he nevertheless felt that the camerawork needed a helping hand as he painted clouds into his negatives. Ruff took interest in Tripe’s paper negatives and digitally reinvented them giving them a new life.
In the galleries you will find a great selection of works by famous early nineteenth-century photographers such as Roger Fenton, William Henry Fox Talbot or Julia Margaret Cameron. Cameron was very experimental with her techniques, which allowed her to produce fascinating portraits, she also happened to be V&A’s first ever artist in residence in 1868, which is quite extraordinary.
With subjects varying from portraits, architecture, ethnography, travel and documentary photographs, there is something for everyone. Capturing historical events and figures on camera, or documenting social history the works dating from different periods open a window to the worlds that are either long gone, or are now slowly disappearing. Contemporary works on display capture the viewer’s attention by means of their aesthetic and artistic qualities and originality of their subjects. For example Jan Kempenaers and his slightly eerie photographs of monuments (‘Spomenik’) scattered over former Yugoslavia, or intriguing series by Peter Funch who documented daily routines of Manhattan commuters. I was drawn to the series of photographs of traditional Nigerian women hairstyles and head ties by the Nigerian artist J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere (1930 – 2014). His images are not just snapshots of different hairstyles, behind each hair arrangement there is a person and a story. Very powerful.
For those who like interactive displays there are stereographs (viewed in devices called stereoscopes two photographs taken from differing angles are merged to create a three-dimensional image), which are extremely popular with visitors. There is also the ‘Dark Tent’ room where you can sit comfortably and watch videos featuring some amazing archival photographs from different periods (allow a generous amount of time to see them all). Last but not least, the displays of cameras of various kinds and ages will make every photo-enthusiast happy.
The new Photography Centre at the V&A, London offers a concise introduction to the history of photography illustrated with carefully chosen and captivating images. The displays will be refreshed from time to time, so it will be worth checking out new additions in the future. In 2022 a new photography library and learning spaces are scheduled to open at the V&A as part of the same project.
The Photography Centre galleries opened in October 2018 and the entry is free of charge.
Sources and further reading:
 https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/julia-margaret-cameron (here you can read more about Julia Margaret Cameron)
 https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/staying-power-photographs-of-black-british-experience (read more about J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, this website is a very interesting introduction to the project ‘Staying Power – Photographs of Black British Experience’ a collaboration between the V&A and Black Cultural Archives)
http://collections.vam.ac.uk/search/?limit=15&q=J.D.+%E2%80%99Okhai+Ojeikere&commit=Search&name%5B%5D=AUTH322310&narrow=1&offset=0&slug=0 (see some examples of J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s photographs in the V&A collection)
https://youtu.be/kU-Mx8ZuAl4 (a short video featuring Thomas Ruff discussing his Linnaeus Tripe commission)