Behind the scenes at the V&A’s new Photography Centre

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Gibson Thornley Architects – V&A Photography Centre – Photography Now – Gallery 97. © Thomas Adank

Four new galleries make the museum’s centre the largest suite of galleries in the UK dedicated to a permanent photography collection. And new commissions, education and outreach add to the appeal, the V&A directors tell BJP

On 25 May the V&A’s Photography Centre reopens, after a huge expansion which has made it the largest suite of galleries in the UK dedicated to a permanent photography collection. With four new galleries added to the existing three, the Photography Centre now has 1000 square metres of dedicated space for photography, and a commitment to displaying and commissioning new work as well as showing off its huge collection of historical prints, books, and artefacts.

Two of the new galleries will feature global contemporary photography, for example, with the opening exhibitions including newly acquired prints by Liz Johnson Artur, Sammy Baloji, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Vasantha Yogananthan and Tarrah Krajnak, plus a large photographic sculpture by Noemie Goudal. 

The other two new rooms are The Kusuma Gallery, dedicated to photography and the book, and Inside the Camera, on the history and use of the camera, and both have been created with an eye to interactivity. The Kusuma Gallery will house the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Library, for example, and have photobooks available for visitors to access; its opening display, How Not to Photograph a Bulldog, is drawn from photographic manuals in the RPS Library. Inside the Camera will include a walk-in camera obscura, meanwhile, the precursor of all lens-based media.

The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Gallery and the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Gallery, which opened with phase one of the centre, have been rehung and will reopen with the exhibition Energy: Sparks from the Collection, featuring work from the 1840s to the present day. The Meta Media Gallery will continue to be dedicated to digital media, and for the centre’s reopening will showcase a new commission by Jake Elwes. “To have so much space dedicated just to the permanent collection is a major bonus, a tremendous boon, and very much a point of jealousy among my colleagues around the world,” says Duncan Forbes, the V&A’s director of photography. “It’s a great thing for the medium and for thinking about the history of photography. We’re very excited.”

It’s a significant development, but then the V&A has a long history with the medium. Its first photography exhibition was back in 1858, and it was the first museum to collect photographs, starting in the 1850s. With 800,000 items its photography collection is now one of the biggest in the world, and it includes one of the first images ever taken in London – a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre shortly after his technique was introduced in 1839. The V&A’s already substantial collection was given a major boost in 2017, when the Royal Photographic Society collection was transferred (with some controversy) from Bradford’s National Science and Media Museum, a move which took 22 lorry loads over six weekends.

“What we are putting into our opening displays and the expanded photography centre reflects some of our recent collecting activities; we definitely are trying to renew our commitment to diversity in all its forms”

“We went from having a collection of approximately half a million photographs to expanding that collection with the addition of about 270,000 photographs, 6000 cameras, another couple of thousand items of other types of photographic equipment, and an amazing library of 26,000 volumes,” says Marta Weiss, V&A senior curator of photography and lead curator of phase two of the Photography Centre. “Our collection grew so significantly, that was definitely one of the motivations for expanding the amount of public space dedicated to photography at the museum.”

That transfer also influenced the V&A’s collecting strategy going forwards because, with such a large archive of 19th and 20th century holdings, it’s now keen to focus its efforts elsewhere. It’s actively acquiring new work by contemporary artists, for example, and initiatives such as the Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project and a series of regional focusses are helping expand its holdings beyond the white, Western, men so long dominant in image-making. The V&A recently completed a focus on South Asia, for example, during which it acquired the work by Vasantha Yogananthan; it acquired Tarrah Krajnak’s work with Parasol’s support.

“What we are putting into our opening displays and the expanded photography centre reflects some of our recent collecting activities; we definitely are trying to renew our commitment to diversity in all its forms,” notes Weiss. “So redressing the historic inequality in terms of representation of women in the collection, but also people and makers of colour, and artists from a wider array of places around the world.”

“We have a very, very large historical collection, we don’t really need to intervene there,” agrees Forbes. “We have almost everything that we need, and we continue to acquire via major gifts throughout the year… There’s a lot of interest in contemporary photography. One of the things I have tried to do with the centre was give the contemporary a much stronger presence. We have a very active Photography Acquisitions Group which funds the work for us – what we buy comes from private funding. [The Photography Acquisitions Group] are very engaged in contemporary practice. It’s also very attractive to audiences. It’s something that people spend a lot of time looking at, whenever they come to the museum.

“And then of course, it’s really good for us to support practitioners,” Forbes continues. “To buy work by mid-career photographers, it’s invaluable for them. We’ve got quite a clear acquisition strategy and it tends to focus on mid-career artists. That’s where we think the best value for money is – and that’s where we often think a lot of the very best and most innovative practice lies.”

The V&A is funding new work by contemporary artists too, commissions such as Jake Elwes’ The Zizi Show, a digital work exploring ethical issues in AI; and a 48-images series by Gauri Gill, showing informal architecture on the outskirts of Delhi. Both works were supported by the Manitou Fund, a private foundation set up in Minnesota by Donald McNeely, which has committed to funding two further print and two further digital commissions, in 2025 and 2027. V&A is also commissioning new work via The Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project, backed by American businesswoman and lawyer Ruth Parasol.

“We’ll be getting 600,000+ visitors a year through these galleries, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was considerably more”

The Photography Centre has significant funding from The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation too, which has helped support phase two of the Photography Centre and is backing a series of two-year Fellowships in photography for early-year curators. Other big donors include Sir Elton John and David Furnish, Meta Media, and the Shao Zhong Art Foundation, among others. In fact, the Photography Centre is so dependent on private funding that it’s “being made possible” by these donors, as the V&A puts it. This isn’t unusual in the UK though, with all the major museums now dependent on donors and commercial activities. The NPG, for example, gets 30% of its funding from the state, raising the other 70% through its commercial activities and donors.

And, as Forbes points out, a major coup for the Photography Centre is the fact that it’s free. “That’s really exciting,” he says. “Based on what we know about phase one, we’ll be getting 600,000+ visitors a year through these galleries, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was considerably more. The capacity to reach a large and engaged audience is the thrill of all this, this very audience-focused project that isn’t going to cost anyone a penny, bar the train for getting to the museum. And one of the things I love is that there is a lot of education going on. There are a lot of school groups, all kinds of teaching and engagement.”

Tarrah Krajnak, ‘Self Portrait as Walking Woman with Bag, 1979 Lima, Peru2019 Los Angeles, CA’, from the series ‘1979 Contact Negatives’, 2019–22. © Tarrah Krajnak.

Weiss adds that there’s also a free and freely accessible study centre, in which anyone can ask to see photographs and photographic items from the V&A’s collection. And she points out that the Photography Centre isn’t the only place to see images in the institution. Close to the Photography Centre inside the V&A is the National Art Library, another freely available resource; in addition there are numerous images spread across the V&A’s other departments and galleries. The V&A also hosts temporary exhibitions, and its travelling shows go round the globe – its exhibition on Julia Margaret Cameron opens in Jeu de Paume, Paris, on 10 October, for example, and its exhibition on Tim Walker is at the Getty, Los Angeles until 20 August. An exhibition of work from the first V&A Parasol Foundation Prize for Women in Photography popped up at Peckham 24 during this year’s Photo London fair.

The V&A also has other outposts, including Young V&A (formerly V&A Museum of Childhood), which reopens on 1 July; V&A East Storehouse, which opens in 2024; and V&A Dundee, which opened in September 2018. In addition it has “a developing programme” of digital collecting, which raises the intriguing possibility of non-location specific exhibitions in future. Even so, the Photography Centre is a major addition to London, the UK and maybe even the world – and, as Weiss points out, it taps into a long history of photography at the V&A on Cromwell Road.

“We have photographs that were made in 1917, when there was a thing called the Exhibition of Allied War Photographs at the V&A,” she says. “And for that exhibition, the photographs were shown actually in the very rooms that have now become the photography centre.”

The V&A’s Photography Centre, London is open from 25 May