Ruby Gilding reviews Known and Strange: Photographs from the Collection, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 6 November 2022
I am standing in front of a photograph of a galaxy. At the centre of the image a foreign disk is surrounded by swirling light, hints of orange and blue stark against its black backdrop. Then my eyes take a second to refocus and it turns out I’m not looking at a galaxy but a metal sink – the circling light that I mistook for cosmic dust is actually water reflecting as it runs towards a drain. This feeling of recognition followed by confusion, only to concede to something else entirely, is characteristic of the V&A’s new display. Known and Strange: Photographs from the Collection (2022) promises to show us photography’s capacity ‘’to blur fact with fiction.’’ In an age of misinformation, the V&A has made a timely enquiry into photography’s feted ability to represent truth while engaging with genre-defying, contemporary works.
The exhibition comprises recent acquisitions from the V&A’s permanent collection, as the museum continues championing a form that walks the line between artistic medium and scientific technique. There are some hard-hitting artists on display; Indian photographer Dayanita Singh is represented by one of her classic concertina photobook-come-museum The Museum Bhavan, while a row of photographs by Zanele Muholi reveals a slightly different take on their instantly recognisable portraits, and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family places family history within social record. As frequently as there was a well-known photographer however, there is an emerging talent – the exhibition affords space for both within its large open-plan layout.
Known and Strange opens with a homage to black and white photography. The proposed equivalence between monochrome colour palettes and “truth” in the history of photography is a fitting starting point for an exhibition about how we interpret reality. Susan Meiselas’ Carnival Strippers series is a case in point. A master of photo essays, Meiselas’ images are arranged as a visual argument of sorts. On the left, the camera is turned away from the stage, showing the blurred faces in the crowd, the odd bare leg in the foreground letting us know the spectacle of the unseen striptease. There is an obvious corollary between nakedness and truth here, but the sense of personality in Meiselas’ portraits hints that there is more than meets the eye.
Moving beyond documentary, the exhibition gives a welcome nod to the variety of contemporary photography.There is Klea McKenna’s Life Hours (4) that combines sight and touch in what she calls a ‘’representational photograph’’ made by pressing embroidered fabric into photosensitive paper. The result has the texture of delicately carved aluminium foil, unlike the haziness of traditional photograms. In a similar vein is Pierre Cordier’s self-portrait Auto-Chemigram, in which he covered his face with cosmetic cream before pressing it into photographic paper. The image created is a three dimensional negative, the cream having acting as a barrier against the red room’s developing agents, moving beyond the traditional definition of photography through its lack of dependence on light.
There are some more tongue-in-cheek selections, namely Tom Lovelace’s No. 03 which is a piece of green canvas that had library notices pinned to it over the years, the bleaching effect of the sun creating an accidental, abstract photogram.
The crowning glory of the exhibition though is Andy Sewell’s Known and Strange Things Pass; a visual odyssey across the gallery wall that takes the physical manifestation of the internet as its subject. The network of cables that carry the internet is shown in images shot on both sides of the Atlantic. Oversized, colourful images of beach paraphernalia and microscopic sea life contrast with glowing industrial scenes. Sewell’s photograph series transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar, and back again, just as the exhibition sets out to prove - no wonder it lends the exhibition its name.
Written by Ruby Gilding
Known and Strange: Photographs from the Collection is on display at the Victoria and Albert museum until 06 November 2022.