Ever since photography was invented in the first half of the 19th century, there have been ongoing debates about the nature of the medium and its value and appeal.
Even today, books about photography usually feel the need to define and discuss what photography is, while exhibitions often feature practitioners whose work is described as blurring the lines between photography and other artforms, whether that is painting, video or even sculpture.
What everyone can agree on is that photography is an accessible, diverse and ubiquitous medium; it is everywhere and nearly everyone is a photographer, with most of us having images on our smartphones and engaging with numerous images every day through websites and other digital media.
Photographs also continue to inhabit the non-digital world in magazines, books, posters and in many other products that we consume.
For museums and galleries that display photography, this creates a problem, but also an opportunity – with photography being so ubiquitous, how do you decide what to show? What makes photography special and worthy of being shown in a gallery?
Questions such as this were surely addressed by curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) as they planned the displays for the Photography Centre, which was completed in May and now has seven galleries.
The V&A began acquiring photographs in 1852, and its collection is now one of the largest in the world, with about 800,000 images dating from 1839 to the present day. How did the museum whittle this down to the 600 images that are on display?
One of photography’s great powers is the way it can tell stories, whether that is about people, places or ideas, and the best of the centre’s galleries reflect this.
The centre kicks off with Inside the Camera, a great introductory gallery that tells the story of photography from its very early days. As well as a small number of objects, the displays are supported by short and funky cartoon films that explain in a simple but engaging way how camera technology has evolved over the years.
These films show how everything links back to the principles of the camera obscura, which, at is most basic, is a darkened room with a small hole on one side through which an images is projected on to a wall. The curators have not tried to do too much in this gallery, which makes it an effective and satisfying introduction.
The Photography Centre ends with displays on the theme of power. Energy: Sparks from the Collection features about 200 works from the 1840s through to the present day.
It’s a clever concept that has allowed the curators to show a bit of everything. A case focusing on nuclear power and atomic weapons could form the basis of an exhibition by itself.
Other subjects covered under the energy theme include coal production, travel, dance, nature and lots more. Inevitably, some of the works have stronger links to the theme than others.
The displays in Energy: Sparks from the Collection feature a wide range of photography techniques, including more obscure ones such as stereographs.
And the theme has also allowed the curators to show works by some of the giants of the medium such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Richard Avedon, Brassaï, Henri Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Man Ray and others. But there also images created by some of the many unknown photographers who feature in the V&A’s collection.
In between the introductory gallery and Energy: Sparks from the Collection, there are spaces showing recent acquisitions that are being exhibited at the museum for the first time. There is a room dedicated to a new digital commission, and a room focusing on photography and the book.
The section on photography and the book houses the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Library. A small number of the books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves are available to browse while the others can be accessed by joining the RPS.
This area also features a small display called How Not to Photograph a Bulldog, which looks at one of the many topics covered by the manuals in the library, in this case revealing how dogs have been used to teach photography, and how dog photography has developed as a discipline in its own right.
The digital commission is by British media artist Jake Elwes, who has explored the use of deepfake technology and artificial intelligence with drag cabaret performance.
The new acquisitions explore a broad range of subjects, including identity, race, sexuality, and climate change, together with a wide range of technical approaches and practices.
I particularly liked the otherworldly scenes created by Antony Cairns using a fusion of traditional and digital photographic and printing processes.
I was also impressed by Peruvian-born Tarrah Krajnak's imaginative self-portraits and German photographer Vera Lutter’s giant works created using a camera obscura.
It will be interesting to see how the V&A’s Photography centre will develop. With such a vast archive, choosing what to show is going to continue to be a challenging but exciting opportunity.
Photography is fast-moving medium, particularly in today’s digital world. Keeping pace with these changes while maintaining coherent displays and showcasing the museum's fantastic collection won’t be easy for the V&A.
One opportunity might be to broaden the spaces devoted to new acquisitions. It would be interesting to see a stronger thematic focus in the future or larger displays devoted to the work of single photographers.
Whatever decisions are taken, with the completion of the V&A's Photography Centre, London now has a fantastic range of spaces dedicated to the medium.
The Centre for British Photography, a private initiative, was unveiled at the start of the year and these new venues have joined the long-established Photographers’ Gallery. There are also a range of other museums and galleries in London, that regularly host temporary photography shows.
Outside the capital the picture is more patchy, not helped by Side Gallery in Newcastle losing its Arts Council England National Portfolio Status last year.
Further back, in 2017, Bradford lost the RPS’s collection when it moved from the National Media Museum (now the National Science and Media Museum) to the V&A, which considerably expanded an already vast collection.
In a kind of levelling-up in reverse, some of these works can now be seen at the Photography Centre in South Kensington.