Monday, 8 August 2016

‘The Camera Exposed’ at the V&A

Photographer unknown, source V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently holding an exhibition of photographs – ‘The Camera Exposed’ – each of which features a camera in some way or other.  Drawn from virtually the medium’s entire history, they include snaps and professional images and show cameras both accidentally caught and deliberately foregrounded.  Portraits, including self-portraits, abound, but there are cameras in still lifes, technical documentation, reportage, fashion shots, and artistic treatments.  The camera turns up in all kinds of photography, whether casually or to the point of fetishism.

Of the 140 examples in the gallery, some are by named photographers, many by unknown amateurs.  The well-known practitioners include Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, André Kertész, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, and last but definitely not least, Weegee (perhaps overrepresented).  The most recent works are photomontages from 2014 by Simon Moretti, in which images are combined using a scanner.

The Cameras can be on their own, isolated from their users, or en masse, as in the hands of ranks of paparazzi.  They may be used as a prop, or by artists to highlight the mechanics of the process.  You get the sense that for some photographers their cameras are barriers against the world (Bill Brandt peeping diffidently, head turned, over his large format camera); yet at the same time showing us the tools of their trade allows them to emphasise their identity as photographer.

Occasionally the camera melds with the holder until they almost become a single android being, the kit part of the personality.  The camera eye accentuates the voyeuristic power of the technology, while photographs of people taking photographs (or pretending to) inject a reflexive aspect.  But the camera itself is not always seen: sometimes it is merely the shadow, underlining the point that photographs depend on light to exist; in one picture a cable release stands in for the camera itself, stretching the exhibition brief somewhat.

Conversely it might be the photographer who is absent.  Charles Thurston Thompson was the first official photographer appointed by what was then the South Kensington Museum and in 1853 he captured a Venetian mirror at Cumberland Lodge.  The camera is prominent, detracting from the required objectivity of the record, but Thompson walked away during the long exposure and cannot be seen, thereby managing to suggest that the camera had taken it without intervention (in another example of his mirror photographs from the same year he is standing behind his equipment).  His are reluctant self-portraits, and the same is true of Eugène Atget’s photographs of shop windows, in which Atget and his camera are ghostly presences, half-hidden among the items in the display. 

‘The Camera Exposed’ is full of interest, but the emphasis is overwhelmingly western European and American, probably a drawback of having to rely on the V&A’s own collection.  A self-portrait using a mirror by Jamaican-born but London-based Armet Francis is a graphic reminder that the net has not been case wide geographically.  Surprisingly there are no smartphones – they must appear frequently in pictures simply because of their ubiquity, but here they are ignored in favour of older technology, creating a glow of nostalgia but not telling the entire story of the camera exposed.

This is then only a thin slice of a huge and fascinating theme.  There is a lot that could have been included and, rather than reduce the number of exhibits to fit the small space downstairs, using Room 100 on the first floor would have allowed the curators greater freedom to explore the topic.  It is fine as far as it goes, but leaves the viewer conscious that it is far from the last word.

The exhibition runs until Sunday, 5 March 2017.  Admission is free.