The history of photography is also part of the social history of artistic taste. We are emerging from a long period when photography was widely considered to be just a mechanical process into which the artist does not enter. The wheel has turned full circle for, as the Turner prize has shown,the medium is now fully accepted again within modern art.
We nearly all make photographs, as most of us write with pens. Yet only some photographic images, like certain forms of writing, acquire the status of art. The reason for this has much to do with the social processes of cultural distinction, in which museums have had a critical role since the 19th century.
Mark Haworth-Booth's lively yet scholarly account of the vicissitudes of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum is in effect a history of the medium itself. The V&A's collection of more than 300,000 photographs was begun almost at the birth of photography itself. As this book shows, the tension between photography viewed as a functional technology of depiction on the one hand and an expressive medium of representation on the other can never be resolved. Histories of what Haworth-Booth terms "the independent art" are most instructive when they deal with the changes in values, attitudes and conventions that surround specific institutions and practices.
Haworth-Booth is curator of photographs at the V&A, which holds the "national collection of the art of photography". Of course it is not the only body to hold a significant collection of the art, and for many years there has been considerable interest in the idea of a "national gallery of photography". It may not be coincidental that the V&A has opened a permanent gallery to display its collection. Better late than never, one might say.
Yet as Haworth-Booth makes clear, at the genesis of the V&A was the idea of collecting photographs. Photography, the new art that combined painterly skills with science, took a major place at the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was, however, classified under both "Fine Arts" and "Philosophical Instruments and Objects Depending upon their Use" - ie, science.
The success of the exhibition led directly to the foundation of the South Kensington Museum in 1857, the precursor of the V&A. From the outset its role as a museum for the masses gave photography a central place, both as the creator of artistic images and as a means of recording important works: indeed, the museum possessed the first "photographic service".
Until the late 19th century, much important work was acquired. But the splitting-off of the museum's functions to newer institutions (such as the Science Museum from 1908) coincided with a tendency to regard photographs as merely visual resources, and the medium in general as handmaiden to the noble arts. By chance this led to some interesting acquisitions, such as a large collection of Eug ne Atget prints bought in 1903-05 as "documents" of Parisian scenes.
Haworth-Booth has worked in the V&A photographic collections since 1972, and he has been ideally placed to witness a period when photography re-emerged from the cocoon into which it was placed by the backward- and inward-looking emphasis on "Englishness" that permeated the institution during the "modern" period (1920-60). No print was acquired as an example of the art of photography in this critically important time, though many important images were (fortunately, if haphazardly) acquired as illustrations of typography, architecture, sculpture, etc. Important collections that might have been given (such as those of the Gernsheims) were fended off by V&A staff who cared little for the medium. It was not until 1969 that a major photography show could be mounted: the highly influential Cartier-Bresson retrospective.
By the time photography had begun its vertiginous ascent in the 1970s, the V&A was miles behind, particularly compared with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the leading collector of photography in the world. Indeed,as the book makes clear, a considerable amount of the V&A's collection was acquired in the period 1977-87, when Roy Strong propelled the museum into the second half of the 20th century.
One of his aims was the creation of a "national photographic collection worthy of the art". But historically important work that could have been cheaply acquired only a decade before now came rather dear, as the photography market was assiduously developed by the auction houses and dealers.
Haworth-Booth and his colleagues sought to acquire as much contemporary work as possible, and the collection has been considerably enriched with historical and recent material, both prints and ephemera, and new media such as holography and digital images.
Perhaps the most critical thing that could be said of Haworth-Booth's well-written and beautifully illustrated work is that it finds itself trapped between two or three stools. It reflects on the history of the collection (marked by periods of neglect), recounts the history of photography, and offers a rationale for the V&A's collecting policy since the 1970s.
These strands generally hold together well, but the author is in a difficult position. In offering a history of photography at the V&A he also exposes his own curatorial preferences. Much of what is in the book or was shown at the first exhibition in the permanent gallery reflects his role in acquisitions. He is bound to be criticised as well as praised for his tastes - one of which may be a bias towards American photography. Yet the important thing is that Haworth-Booth is committed to making the V&A a leading institution for the collection and conservation of photography. Now all he needs is more space for that "National Gallery".
Peter Hamilton is lecturer in sociology, Open University.
Photography, An Independent Art: Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum 1839-1996
Author - Mark Haworth-Booth
ISBN - 1 85177 204 9
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £30.00
Pages - 208