Charles Thurston Thompson, Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London and the Société française de photographie at the South Kensington Museum, 1858

Ideas Series: Great Photographs Are Like Visual Poetry

Each morning that I walk into work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I am made strongly aware of the frame of reference surrounding the photographs that it is my job to care for and to make accessible on a physical and intellectual level.

The building is designed to appear like a secular cathedral, or a palace of art, and is filled to the brim with sculpture, ceramics, textiles, jewellery, furniture, paintings, books, and many other beautiful things treasured as some of the best examples of fine and decorative art in the world. Ranging from around the 10th century to the present, the collections are gloriously diverse, and the galleries are full of serendipitous encounters. The first Director, Sir Henry Cole, described the Museum in 1857 as ‘a refuge for destitute collections’. More than a century later Sir Roy Strong called it ‘an extremely capacious handbag’. Everything is here, from the domestic to the palatial, from Victorian pincushions to Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. Like photography itself, it is a very broad church.

Since I am asked to respond primarily as a museum curator to the question, what makes a good photograph and against what criteria can these judgements be made?my response firstly has to be prefaced by the overarching context of the museum, and particularly the V&A, as an institution. The museum has a freely available Collections Development Policy (photographs can be found in section 4). Selecting acquisitions for the museum is a collaborative and consultative rather than a solitary act, a dialogue between the history of a collection and with photographers, collectors and curators both past and present. The V&A was the first museum in the world to collect photographs, beginning in 1852, and was the first to exhibit them, in 1858. The collection has its own existing and continually augmenting shape, hollowed out over time like the banks of a river. How we choose, assess and justify what we wish to acquire today links with what we already have, and how this complements other UK and international museum collections. However, this professional context naturally sits alongside a personal set of preferences and intuitive responses. The collective and individual decisions about what makes a good photograph are constantly in play.

The V&A’s collections were formed at a time when museums aspired to be ‘encyclopaedic’, confidently attempting to collect representative selections of the designed world under one roof. Where original artifacts could not be had, plaster casts or photographs acted as surrogates. Providing exemplars from the past and present, it was intended to offset fears that the rapid mechanization seen in the mid-nineteenth century would reduce the quality of art and design. It was set up to act as a place of creative inspiration for artists and designers, and to inform public taste. In the 21st century, the encyclopaedic museum is seen as impossible, flawed by imperialistic single-point-of-view value judgments. We have been taught that all judgments are relative and biased, and are inflected according to our own institutional, cultural, gendered, social and economic backgrounds. (In recent years I have noticed a shift in terminology: I am no longer asked to be a ‘judge’ for certain competitions, but rather to be a ‘selector’. In this way, though I cannot ultimately ‘judge’ anyone’s work, I can ‘select’ it according to the criteria that is shaped by my institutional and personal framework). Yet even as the encyclopaedic and judgmental are exposed and understood in the contexts of the museum, many of the administrative structures and the trajectory of collections shaped by history remain, as do a residue of trust and authority. And people are still creatively inspired by its contents.

Today, we collect at the museum to draw the material evidence of our visual culture into a zone of permanent, public ownership and make it available and meaningful to all. To do justice to contemporary practice and to serve our audience we try to present an artistically and intellectually rigorous account of our visual culture, looking at how objects are exemplary of a particular idea, subject or technology. This might take novel as well as traditional forms and should air diverse voices. We do make intrinsic value judgements (while constantly questioning and testing them) about quality (excellence), taste and ethics, measuring these things with regard to durability, cost, accessibility and representativeness. Everything we acquire is considered in terms of how we might use it to support a range of educational and learning activities, from exhibitions, publications, loans, research, school visits, lectures, web presence etc.

The inscription over the main entrance is a quotation from the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds: ‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose’. Even if somewhat nebulous (or maybe just inclusive?), the motto implies that objects housed in the museum must be fit for their stated purpose. This could apply to items made for functional purposes, or to objects of aesthetic contemplation, and sometimes to objects that marry the two. It is a sentiment that the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Bauhaus would endorse. Put simply: does the thing achieve what it sets out to achieve within its own criteria? Do its materials and methods match its message? Moreover, does it elegantly solve a visual or practical question? In the case of a photograph, the considerations would include the appropriate balance of technical execution, formal qualities and conceptual ideas. For example: has the photographer chosen to work in black and white consciously because it suits the message he or she wants to convey in the photograph? Is the formal and technical execution of the work being commented on as part of a deliberate reassessment of those values on a conceptual level? Is the idea best expressed as a series of images in a book, on a screen or as a single print framed on a wall? Is there evidence of a rigour of thought, research, debate, editing, theoretical discussion and visual literacy that underpins the work?

Assimilating all of these contexts and criteria – like learning musical scales and the rules of harmony in order to forget them and improvise – is as essential to appreciating photographs as it is to making them. For me personally, the ultimate test of an artwork rests on its ability to arrest me first, capturing my attention without anything other than its appearance. Good photographs neatly express the obscure and complex meeting point of illusion, reality and theatre. When made with skill and sensitivity they inhabit the wonderful hinterland where perception and imagination meaningfully collide. Great photographs are like visual poetry. By learning to recognise their multifaceted codes for transmitting information alongside emotion, my perceptive capacities are sharpened and my knowledge enriched. They capture a situation or emotion that transcends the everyday. Like a meditation, they move me beyond my small self.

There is a hint of alchemy in photography too. Its historic processes and chemistry – silver salts and dark rooms – suggested magical transformations: capturing, extracting, refining and transmuting the ordinary into the precious. This analogue DNA has mapped over into the digital with consequences and ideas yet to be fully explored. The most intriguing photographs for me do not over-explain. Instead, they leave something that needles me. Though they brim with information and are derived from the real world, they always flirt ambiguously with reality. They provoke desire for knowledge, and seem to promise it, but ultimately fall profoundly silent and still. This enigmatic gap between promise and desire lends creative tension. It has been written about many times, but it still rings true: with their ability to freeze moments, photographs command pathos. In them, I am looking for a little of that sweet feeling of melancholy which is bound up with the passing of time. They remind me that it is simply good and precious to be alive.

Published  7 October 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks