The V&A’s new photography centre will open on 12 October, with a newly-commissioned series by Thomas Ruff, newly-acquired photographs by Linda McCartney, and an inaugural display tracing the history of photography through the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection.
The new facility will more than double the V&A’s current photography exhibition space, and follows the transfer of over 270,000 photographs, 26,000 publications and 6000 pieces of equipment from the RPS collection formerly held in the National Media Museum in Bradford – a controversial transfer, described at the time as “an appalling act of cultural vandalism” by Simon Cooke, the leader of the Conservative opposition on Bradford council.
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, said that the transfer had “provided the catalyst for this dramatic reimagining of photography at the V&A” however, and that the new centre will “seamlessly span the entire history of photography….from daguerreotype to digital”. He added that the V&A is particularly well-placed to tell this story given its long engagement with photography – it was one of the first museums to put together a photographic exhibition, partly because its founder, Henry Cole, was a keen amateur photographer.
The RPS show will feature work from the 19th century to the present day, including prints and negatives by pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Frederick Scott Archer as well as camera equipment and photographic publications. The final display, said the V&A’s senior curator of photographs Martin Barnes, will be full of “treasures waiting to be discovered”.
The Thomas Ruff commission also has an historical element, with renowned German photographer asked to create new work inspired by Linnaeus Tripe’s 1850s paper negatives of India and Burma, which are held in the V&A collection. According to Barnes, the commission “signals that we want to use the historical collections and the wider collection of the museum to inspire new work”.
The Linda McCartney images have been gifted to the V&A by Sir Paul McCartney, and include intimate portraits of musical legends such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. The collection comprises 63 images in total, tracing the photographer’s career across four decades between 1960s and 1990s.
“It’s hard to look at the pictures without the name in mind, but that was what we were trying to do with the curators at the archive,” said Barnes. “I think she had a real eye for capturing the unguarded and unstaged moment.”
The V&A plans to run events and activities in the new centre, which is designed by David Kohn Architects and will continue to expand the facility. Phase Two of the launch, which is due to open in 2022, will see the museum add more gallery space, and create a teaching and research facility, a browsing library, and a studio and darkroom, which will enable photographers’ residencies.