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Book Bag: Two From the V&A Photography Library Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

28 January 2019

The Victoria & Albert permanent photography collection includes over 300,000 images dating from 1839 to the present. Its Photography Library explores the many facets of the art of photography by drawing from that vast collection to product 192-page books that present the works on generous 7.5 x 9-3/4 inch pages.

The series features an unusually smart introductory essay surveying the selection. And each plate includes full identification as well as a paragraph explaining its importance.

You can, if you're not careful, get an education from this series.

We spent an enjoyable afternoon with two of the titles in the series recently and came away feeling more museums should make their collections available in book form.

Sure, there's the Web, but the Web tends not to be curated. The V&A has a wonderful search engine but like any search engine, it helps to know what you're looking for.

These books, however, are a finite subset curated by someone who knows the field. They provide an excellent overview but, even more importantly, can be the start of something special, leading you to new discoveries.

When books do that, they both get our upright standing (and educated) applause.


Just as paintings can be made without a brush, Martin Barnes writes in the introduction, "so a photograph can be made without a camera."

And there are some advantages to that approach, he points out.

"The camera -- and latterly the mobile phone, or other device incorporating a camera -- can be a tool, a toy, a design item and a status symbol. Each of these definitions suits market forces and drives the marriage of art and commerce that photography has always been."

But "photography divorced from the camera" has now and then "emerged into prominence to push or re-establish the boundaries of photography and rethink its possibilities as an expressive medium."

We thought we were going to be bored to tears looking at abstract Ray-o-grams but as we paged through, we often stopped, backtracked and studied an image we hadn't expected to find. And that absolutely delighted us.

There's a healthy selection of Ann Atkins's cyanotypes. She produced the first illustrated book full of them in 1843 and they are still captivating. And there is that contact image of the window at Lacock Abbery by Floris Neusüss and Renate Heyne, exposed at night by shining light through the window to make a life-size image.

Susan Gamble's holography dresses her plates with stockings and knickers, as the V&A calls them. And Nick Veasey's X-ray of a Mini Cooper and an iPod will encourage you to peer intently, forgetting to blink.

You might even think of indulging in the art yourself. There are scannergrams of flowers by Barbara and Zafer Baran that beg to be imitated, for example.

And who knows where that might led?

Cameraless Photography by Martin Barnes, published by Thames & Hudson, 192 pages, $34.95 (or $27.67 at


Photography has, Marta Weiss admits in her introduction, "consistently been used to depict fiction rather than fact." Since the almost the very beginning, she adds, although since the 1970s the staged, constructed or tableau photograph has been "a widespread feature in contemporary art."

So you might expect to find Cindy Sherman here (and there she is) but there's also Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, that is) and a healthy dose of Julia Margaret Cameron.

You also get Gregory Crewdson's photographic productions that take over small towns. And, in contrast, Keith Arnatt's macro shots of garbage pretending to be things like sunsets.

Theatricality abounds in the book, Weiss notes. Every image was staged for the camera although none of them document theatrical performances. Which may be the final word on Roger Fenton's Crimean War landscape.

Each of them represents a great deal more prep than street shooting. And sometimes that prep is over the top. Oliver Boberg, for example, photographs a place to make a model of it in his studio that he subsequently photographs.

These images provide such a wealth of detail to explore that it is often hard to turn the page.

The only thing that keeps you going is the delight in finding out what new fiction comes to life when you do.

Making It Up: Photographic Fictions by Marta Weiss, published by Thames & Hudson, 192 pages, $34.95 (or $33.15 at

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