Friday, 30 November 2012


I was up in London on Wednesday, for a meeting in the library of the Natural History Museum.  If, like me, you had an abiding childhood interest in all things "natural history", or, again like me, had a child with an abiding interest in all things "dinosaur", then the NHM is probably a very familiar and special place to you.  I have to say it's fun getting to go behind the scenes, which is all a bit Harry Potter-ish, then emerging from one of those mysterious doors marked "private" and becoming just another visitor again.

However, I had a couple of hours to kill before my meeting, so I decided to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum first (or "V&A" as it brands itself these days) which, amazingly, I have never visited before, despite the fact it's just on the other side of the road from the NHM.  Once inside, I was tempted to give the meeting a miss, as I could have happily spent the rest of the day there.  Wonderful things, wonderful things.

Stately pleasure dome


The Hereford Screen as a shadow theatre

I fell for this sculpture in the "glass" gallery,
but it was too heavy to get under my coat

Outside, a pavement artist had abandoned Big Ben

The NHM all dressed up for Christmas
(there's an ice-skating rink out the front)

Currently, there's a free exhibition at the V&A, Light from the Middle East: New Photography.  It's worth a visit, if you're in Town before it comes down in April.  It's an interesting look at the ways photography is being used by documentarists and artists to examine the "social challenges and political upheavals" in that part of the world.  There's some good work, though I'm afraid to say the ubiquitous trustafarian art-worldview has established itself, even there.  I won't go on about that now, except to say that if you have to explain to me using text why your pictures are worth a look, then it's you, not me, that needs to question some assumptions.

Amongst all the shouty giant colour images, I was most taken by the series "The Imaginary Return (Le retour imaginaire)", a set of tiny, quiet, monochrome pictures shot with a box camera:
Atiq Rahimi is a writer, film director and photographer who fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1984, seeking political refuge in France, where he is now based. He returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. Confronted by the ruins of Kabul, he decided not to photograph the city with his digital camera. Instead he chose a primitive box camera normally used to take identity portraits in the streets of Kabul. The unpredictable process resulted in dreamlike photographs. They convey the nostalgia and brutal feelings of loss that Rahimi experienced when revisiting the war-wounded city.
I don't know whether it's the result of handling so many pre-1960s family snapshots recently, but I find I really like the "production values" of such small images.  It seems more "photographic" to me, more connected to the true social function of the technology in most people's lives.  Anything printed larger than, say, 12" x 16" (and that's pretty enormous, by snapshot standards) seems to reveal the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, of the medium.

Paradoxically, the famed illusion of reality created by photography evaporates when super-enlarged:  the fractal-style interest of a pencil line or a painted mark (the closer you get, the more interesting its complexity becomes) is not there when looking at photographic grain or pixels, especially on an unpleasantly glossy or mechanically-textured plastic paper.  It's generally either too blandly smooth or not grainy enough, rarely "just right", and rarely visually compelling.  At larger scales, I think I prefer the simplified colours and shapes but more suggestive lines and textures of the graphic arts to photography.

A caged peacock...
I can imagine ways of presenting this as a comment on Iran,
but actually it's just a small, gorgeous, "found" photograph

that I really, really wish was one of mine.
(from the Foster Collection of found photographs)

But that's the whole point of the V&A.  It's set up to enable you to do an extended "compare and contrast" across media, materials, styles, approaches, and time periods.  In places it's a bit too "interpreted" for my taste (the displays on 20th century design beg so many questions I got quite annoyed), but it's worth getting annoyed about something worth getting annoyed about, for a change.


Gavin McL said...

Ahh Mike I see from your following post that you did make it the permanent exhibition of photography despite it being hidden on a rather obscure corridor.

I enjoyed as you say the opportunity to contrast and compare the various photographers and techniques -I particulary enjoyed the daguerrotype next to one of the original using the Fox-Talbot method.

You might like this website which has plenty of detail about those Afghan Cameras

A few years ago we took our eldest daughter to have a look at the exhibition about the "Great Exhibition" in the V & A as she was "doing it" at school. Our youngest was recently mobile and was only interested in climbing stairs and running along corridors - she lead me a merry dance through parts of the V & A I never knew existed. I remember coming across a gient glass rotunda containing teapots and endless corridors of assorted china.
Glad you enjoyed the trip


Mike C. said...


Actually, no, I didn't find the photography gallery -- wish I had -- I was just wandering at random. The JMC image was being used for some illustrative purpose I can't even remember now.

Thanks for the link -- I love the idea of an all-in-one camera and darkroom -- DIY polaroid!


Gavin McL said...

You wouldn't find the permanent photography gallery just by wandering - A map is a minimum requirement, preferably a personal guide.

I thought you might have found as there are several JMC portraits.

The Afghan Cameras are great - almost tempted to try and build one - but maybe not