Friday 26 February 2010

'Points of View' Exhibition at the British Library : capturing the nineteenth century in photographs

I just managed to catch the end of the 'Points of View exhibition at the British Library. The exhibition is billed as “capturing the nineteenth century in photographs”. The Financial Times is quoted on the British Library information as describing it as “An exhibition that signals the welcome public debut of one of the world’s great photographic Collections.”

From a technical standpoint, the exhibition certainly does capture the nineteenth century in photographic terms and I did enjoy, for example, the video on how to make calotypes. It was also fun to try out an original magic lantern and slides. So as a technical history it was interesting – although I wondered if it would be so easy to grasp or take in if you didn't already have a reasonable knowledge of the processes involved. I did hear, also, several complaints as I went through the exhibition about it being too much centred on the technical side of things and not enough about social context, or further contextual details of the photographs.

Certainly, it was a bit of a whistle-stop tour. There was not too much detail on any of the 'themes' or the photographers apart from one or two – for example, Peter Henry Emmerson was very well represented (which I enjoyed) whereas there was only one photograph from Robert Adamson, perhaps because his work resides mainly in Scotland, at the University of St Andrews (as well as George Eastman House) rather than the in the British Library – in fact I had the feeling of many omissions, many of whom appear to be women photographers of the period, including Julia Margaret Cameron. So some very well known photographers were not represented at all, or very briefly, due to the limitations of the Library Collection (and possibly also due to curator choices).
Perhaps not quite as many 'points of view', then, as there might have been.

In some ways this exhibition does “capture the nineteenth century”: it's preoccupations, (some more benign than others) it's prejudices and its hypocrisies. The sense of leisure that many early photographers enjoyed, the desire to collect and classify, (people as well as objects), colonial expansion. Views of “the Empire” were very well represented, reflecting the priorities of the age, inevitably I suppose. There was much less of the beginnings of documentary work as expressed in the work of Thomas Annan, for example, and his portrayal of Glasgow tenements in the later decades of the nineteenth century. In fact, I wonder if there is just too much missing for this collection to be described as “one of the world's great photographic Collections” unless there is a fair bit more in the Collection itself than was on display.

I did enjoy the exhibition but I came away longing for the next era, the one that is alluded to in the closing stages of the exhibition – the world of the Kodak box camera, of photography made more and more widely available, unrestricted to the leisured and wealthy on the one hand, or the artisan on the other – and despite the fun and fascination, and occasional glimpses of something deeper, there is ultimately a suffocating feel to this exhibition, both in subject matter and in the very role of photography, which left me grateful for the movements in the early part of the twentieth century which would both reflect and inform changing social attitudes.

However, I'm glad I went. There are a few days left to catch it (closes Sunday 7 March)...and it's free.

Points of View - The British Library

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