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Photography in all its guises.

Since its inception in 1983, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, has avoided making value judgements about the different uses of photography. Instead, it has acquired and exhibited the rich diversity of practices that characterise the medium, as Russell Roberts, the museum's curator of photography, explains in this survey of new acquisitions of vintage photographs.

Despite its relative youthfulness as a national museum, the origins and evolution of the collection of photography at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT) are historically complex and slightly curious. Following the success of the Great Exhibition in 1851, where photography from around the world was offered up to the general public for the first time, a government committee decided to create a new type of institution dedicated to industry and the applied arts. Subsequently the South Kensington Museum, this was founded in 1857. Here, photography--as it has done since the public announcement of its invention in January 1839--had different identities, various disguises and aspirations that both reinforced and unsettled the established cultural order of things. Photography's primary role in the museum was the documentation and dissemination of collections, although there were also, from time to time, exhibitions of photographs by serious amateurs in the pursuit of high art.

In 1882, the director of the South Kensington Museum, Philip Cunliffe Owen, instigated the formation of a collection to illustrate the history of photography. Notices were posted in The British Journal of Photography encouraging readers to give 'valuable specimens' to the museum, and exhibitors of photography at the Society of Arts were asked to act generously in supporting this new initiative. This marked the beginning of the national collection of photography, which was initially based in the museum's science department. Here the collection would grow, and notable acquisitions were made of work by seminal photographers of the nineteenth century, including William Henry Fox Talbot, Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron, to name but a few.

The reorganisation of the South Kensington Museum in the 1890s led to the development of two new institutions: the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The backbone of the NMPFT collection was assembled from the holdings of the former, which grew steadily throughout the twentieth century. In the 1970s, numerous catalysts led to the formation of a dedicated national museum: a new sense in exhibitions and publishing of the cultural importance of photography; auction-house interest in its history, which stimulated an increase in private collecting; contemporary relevance in the form of an Arts Council infrastructure for galleries, exhibitions and grants; and the introduction of photography as a subject in further and higher education.

Several institutions, including the Science Museum, the V&A, the Royal Photographic Society and the Kodak Museum, were interested in being the focus of the national museum, and it was only after lengthy negotiations that the NMPFT opened in 1983. The transfer of the Science Museum's photographic collection to the new museum's home in Bradford provoked reflection on the cultural framework and contemporary relevance of that collection. The primarily technological emphasis that initially determined collecting and exhibition policies was healthily revised to embrace broader cultural agendas, and it was not difficult to bring art-historical interests to bear on the holdings.

There is much to celebrate, both visually and culturally, in the applications of photography to different disciplines and uses, ranging from forensic science, anthropology, police photography, the media industries, snapshots, topographical surveys, photographically illustrated books, itinerant photography, social reform, record photography and so on. It is vital and particular to this collection that, despite the formal beauty of many types of photography, the different histories and conditions involved in their making are acknowledged.

With its roots firmly in the art-science debates of the nineteenth century, the collection contains many wonderful and unique items representing an array of different types of photographs. Amongst its recognised treasures are some of the seminal moments, pictures and movements that have shaped photography in the past 165 years. It is difficult to single out individual items, but they include the notes, writings and experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot, which provide a deep insight into the imagery and thinking associated with the beginnings of modern photography; the extensive holdings of prints by Fenton, Cameron and Peter Henry Emerson; the myriad examples of photography's popular role, from early Daguerreotypes to the anonymous albums that tell us so much about photography's vital place in social life; the extraordinary range of photographic technologies and commercial ephemera; and recent work by important artists such as Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Graham Smith, Hannah Starkey, Susan Derges, Joan Fontcuberta, Richard Billingham and Luc Delahaye. It is a collection that testifies to photography's origins in modernity, and its continued evolution highlights the medium's often slippery and mutable role, as genres and sensibilities are mixed and re-worked in contemporary art.

During the NMPFT'S first decade, major acquisitions included the Kodak Museum collection, The Daily Herald picture library (an astonishing archive of British social and cultural history), the Estate of Tony Ray-Jones and individual items of significance, such as Julia Margaret Cameron's remarkable 'Herschel Album', followed in 2003 by portraits of Alice Liddell by C.L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). The museum has continued to add important international contemporary perspectives (with an emphasis on work made in Britain), as well as enriching its historical holdings to build a collection that now, rather dauntingly, consists of over three million items.

The acquisition of the collection of the Royal Photographic Society in 2003 was a historic moment for both the museum and for photography. This saw the arrival of over 300,000 items of historical importance, including one of the finest libraries of photographic literature. This collection is particularly strong in fine-art traditions, including the various strands associated with Pictorialism, the Secessionist movements and modernism. The RPS Collection owes its existence largely to the vision and energy of John Dudley Johnston, the society's dynamic curator, who collected so voraciously and with style from the 1920s onwards.

Without the support of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Kodak, the National Art Collections Fund and Yorkshire Forward, this important acquisition would not have been possible. The RPS Collection is now readily accessible through the museum's Insight: Collections & Research Centre, by appointment. There is still plenty of work to be done to address the extent of the collection and to ensure that public interest and the work of researchers are well supported. It is a phenomenal collection, with enough material to occupy generations of curators to come and one that continues to grow in new and exciting ways.

Within a few years of the announcement of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot set out details of his invention in his photographically illustrated book The Pencil of Nature (1844-46). A practical demonstration of the possibilities of photography, it was also the first philosophical account of how photography would (in banal and profound ways) change the way we see things. The NMPFT collection is a rich testimony to the fulfilment, in both practice and ideas, of Talbot's prophecy. The following selection of recent acquisitions gives a small hint of what is held by the museum and focuses primarily on items that came with the RPS Collection, some quirky, some iconic. The museum's collection is a living entity and future acquisitions will not only build on its historical importance but will also concentrate on the post-war period, the cultural impact of imaging technologies and the work of living artists.


Albumen print, 34.9 x 26.2 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-22613. RPs Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Kodak, the National Art Collections Fund (NACF) and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

Julia Margaret Cameron took up photography in 1863, when her daughter gave her a camera to offset the boredom of life in the small village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. A studio was created from the hen house; her darkroom was a converted coal-shed.

Cameron became proficient in the wet collodion process, producing over 3,000 large-format negatives. Her social connections provided her with links to eminent Victorians, such as Sir John Herschel, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle, of whom she made portraits. She also created tableaux based on Pre-Raphaelite themes, using her friends, family and servants. Thanks to Tennyson, Cameron was commissioned to provide illustrations for a new edition of Idylls of the King.

Gretchen is a character from Goethe's Faust. She is in some ways shown as a gothic, symbolic version of the figure of Mary Magdalene, whom Cameron evoked in other female studies.


Photogenic drawing (salt paper print), 16.2 x 13.1 an, no. 2003-5001-2-23368. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Estate Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACF and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

Johann Carl Enslen (1759-1849), of Stuttgart, began experimenting with photography in 1839 at the age of 80 after reading reports of William Henry Fox Talbot's work in England. Little remains of his experiments, due to a fire in the museum in Lubeck during World War II. His surviving images are based on contact prints using objects or engravings that were placed on light-sensitive paper and exposed to light, washed, then fixed using a salt solution. This combination of the image of Christ with a fragment of nature suggests the divine plan behind the natural world, but it can also be seen as a question.


Gelatin silver print, 13.3 x 8.4 cm, no. 2002-5054. Acquired 2003

The Spiritualist movement began in the 1850s. From the 1860s, despite photography's dominant links with the world of facts, the 'medium' was also seen as a way of giving substance to fleeting encounters with the dead. By 1900 psychic phenomena were both a popular pastime and the subject of discussion among a number of intellectuals and writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Spiritualism witnessed a revival in Britain in the wake of the huge loss of life during World War I. These meetings, together with the photographs produced, offered a form of solace.

This portrait is taken from an album of spirit photographs assembled in the 1920s, which was found in a second-hand bookshop near Rochdale. It includes numerous portraits by the notorious spirit photographer William Hope. This 'group' portrait is one of over twenty prints in postcard format. Painstakingly assembled by a member of the Crewe Spirit Circle, each image is accompanied by a hand-written account naming the sitters and the spirit extras. This album can be compared with photographs found elsewhere in the collection, such as those of the famous Cottingley fairies.


Heliograph on pewter, 16.4 x 12.8 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-22332. RPS Collection, NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACF and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

In the early 1820s Niepce began experimenting with making prints using bitumen of Judea, which hardens when exposed to light. Unexposed areas remained soft and could be removed with oil of lavender and turpentine. He made the finest examples of this Heliographic process, as he called it, in 1826, when he contact-printed an engraving of Cardinal d'Amboise, dissolved the soluble bitumen, and put the plate in an acid bath. The hardened bitumen acted as a resist, so that the acid etched only the metal in the lines left by the engraving. The resulting plate was used to make this print: the first successful photomechanical reproduction.


Albumen print, 38.5 x 52.4 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-23284. PUS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACF and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

Many of the early attempts to elevate photography's cultural status to that of a fine art involved using themes and images drawn from painting and literature. Robinson brought another dimension in that he constructed his images from several negatives and combined them, to some extent seamlessly, in the final print. This technique, learned from Oscar Rejlander, introduced a level of craftsmanship: the hand of the artist at work. Robinson's crusade for photography as art led him to form the Linked Ring Brotherhood in 1892. This consisted of members of the Royal Photographic Society who wanted to develop a new aesthetic vocabulary for photography. They became aligned with Pictorialist sensibilities in an attempt to put photography on a footing with painting.


Albumen print, 36.6 x 25.2 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-20924. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACF and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

In 1853, Roger Fenton became the first Secretary of the Photographic Society of London (later the RPS). He was one of a small group of founding members who in the previous year had initiated the influential exhibition of photographs held at the Society of Arts. Fenton was the first to exploit the production of high-quality images of landscapes, country houses and works of art, with a view to selling prints to the public. His pioneering studies of the Crimean War in 1855 were used as the basis of newspaper illustrations, printed as limited-edition folios and displayed in solo exhibitions. Following his time in the Crimea, Fenton became the first museum photographer. His contract with the British Museum resulted in a range of artefacts being documented for scholarly and inventorial purposes. Although beautiful in its own right, The Head of Minerva is essentially a matter-of-fact record photograph.

LA ROSE BY EDWARD J. STEICHEN (1879-1973), 1901.

Gum platinum print, 148 x 132 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-20132. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACF and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

Steichen's career took him from impressionistic artist of the late nineteenth century to director of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art. In between, he embraced different facets of photography--pictorialist, abstract, 'straight', advertising and fashion. He belonged to the Photo-Secession movement in New York and the Linked Ring Brotherhood in Britain, two groups associated with advancing photography as an art form in its own right.

La Rose was Steichen's lover, muse and model for several of his nude studies. The portrait's sensuousness is powerfully conveyed by the use of the gum platinum process, cold yet rendering skin tones with a sense of touch heightened by the expression of simmering ecstasy.


Bromide print, 39.5 x 49.9 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-20566. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACF and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

This print is of an object that hangs together like a Surrealist poem, its sense of the bizarre and incongruent heightened by the matter-of-fact title. These objects were retrieved from the stomach of an ostrich at London Zoo after its death. They include shirt cuffs, a handkerchief, coins, staples, buttons, screws, string, a pencil and so on.

However, F.W. Bond was far removed from the influences of the European avant-garde. He worked for the Zoological Society of London and became a Fellow of the RPS. On the reverse of the print, written in pencil, is a list of the items swallowed by the ostrich; the large nail brought about its demise, as it perforated the bird's throat. It is an image that gives substance to the fact that an ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.


Vivex three colour cabro print, 36.2 x 29.7 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-21730. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the NACE and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

After a three-year apprenticeship with Lallie Charles, a leading female portrait photographer, Madame Yevonde set up her own studio in 1914. In the early thirties, she experimented with the newly available Vivex Colour process, invented by D.A. Spencer. The prints, shown at the Albany Gallery in 1932, were the first exhibited examples of colour photographic portraiture in England. Their critical success led to Yevonde undertaking work for Christie's, Daimler and Fortune Magazine. At this time she began the 'Goddess' series, in which she photographed members of the London social elite as mythological characters. The vibrancy of the colours was further manipulated in the lighting, which used coloured gels to produce a range of visual effects. Yevonde's portraiture has a sense of film in its scale, grand historical narrative and visual spectacle.


Gelatin silver print, 19.2 x 24.4 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-23275. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the MACE and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

Edward Weston was central to photographic modernism as a member of the Group f/64. In the 1920s, his work changed from a soft-focus Pictorialism to a streamlined and hard-edged modernist aesthetic. He lived in Mexico for three years, developing his new approach and producing many of his best-known pictures, including those of the Italian actress and photographer Tina Modotti. He also photographed D.H. Lawrence and Diego Rivera and began his series of close-up studies of clouds, rocks and vegetables. On returning to California in 1927, Weston began a series of nudes in the sand dunes of Oceano. His model, Charis Wilson, became his second wife. Taken on a large format 8 x 10 camera, these pictures are gently choreographed, as the model fell into the sand producing contorted and slightly uncomfortable poses.


C-type print, 32.7 x 48.5 cm, no. 2003-5001-2-20548. RPS Collection at the NMPFT. Acquired with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the HLF, Kodak, the MACE and Yorkshire Forward, 2003

For nine years Larry Burrows covered the war in Indochina for Life magazine under extreme conditions. Robert Capa's famous dictum for war photographers 'that if your pictures are not good enough, then you are not close enough' does not apply to Burrows. His pictures are unflinching, direct but not devoid of visual poetics that emphasise the bloody and tragic consequences of war. His use of colour is particularly interesting. Until the 1960s, war journalism had predominantly been the property of the gritty realism associated with black and white. In this picture, Burrows handles colour in a way that evokes many aspects of painting. One could argue that there are strong links with religious iconography, with references to crucifixion and deposition studies, amplifying ideas of sacrifice and human frailty.

Shot down in a helicopter togther with other journalists coveting the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos, Burrows died at the age of 44. However, he had created a body of work that has remained synonymous with the conflict in Vietnam. His images brought the war home in all its atrocious vividness, pricking the consciousness of the public.
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Author:Roberts, Russell
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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