Creeping round the back of the V&A to get at the photography gallery has always felt a little untoward, the fine arts equivalent of ducking into a sex shop in Soho. Given the eternal arguments over photography’s status, this voyeurism may be appropriate, but it seems unworthy of one of the world’s great collections, begun in 1852 and assiduously updated ever since.
Now there’s a freshly polished upstairs gallery, small enough to peruse in an hour, and curator Martin Barnes’s initial choices (the selection will rotate) are immensely impressive. A loose timeline, starting with a wonderful silvery daguerrotype of Parliament Street dating from a few weeks after the 1839 invention of the process, incorporates famous foreigners and lesser known Brits such as the nature photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner. There’s also a focus on the fey Victorian images of Julia Margaret Cameron, who arranged people as if they were flowers, and a focus on Henri Cartier-Bresson, who made a fetish of arranging nothing but his Leica. Herbert Ponting’s incredible image from Scott’s fateful final trip of their ship framed by Antarctic ice is on show, as is a detailed John Murray panorama of the Taj Mahal from 1855 – two years before the Indian Mutiny.
Diane Arbus’s twins are here (appropriately, since they’re also in Paris at the Jeu de Paume’s big exhibition), as is a luminous Ansel Adams landscape and a Man Ray of his lover and acolyte Lee Miller, surely the only photographer ever to look good in low-cut swimwear. Only one image, Harold Edgerton’s milk-drop coronet, is in colour – an odd exception, but it would be a poor photographic display that failed to include a few of those.