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July 30 2012

Fateful journey: The Lady of Shalott

The pre-Raphaelite JW Waterhouse evokes the Arthurian age in this melancholic scene, painted from Alfred Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott, showing the young woman journeying to Camelot and certain death

October 24 2011

V&A Photographs Gallery showcases world's oldest collection

Classic images from Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson go on display at the medium's spiritual home

Photography is a mechanical art. The photographer points a lens at an object, records the image on a plate or film or, today, in digital memory. Therefore all photographs should be similar, the hands of individual photographers unrecognisable. Yet the new Photographs Gallery at the V&A, which opened on Monday to showcase the world's oldest museum collection of photographs, reveals the apparently limitless variety of the art and the utterly personal genius of great photographers.

A photograph of a steam train taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902 hangs near Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1932 picture Behind Gare St Lazare, Paris, on the blue-painted wall of the long, elegantly restored, Victorian gallery.

Both black and white prints portray a ragged industrial landscape of rail tracks in brooding weather. But they are so profoundly different that you almost feel you are looking at two different art forms, two technologies. Cartier-Bresson's image is so light and mobile, an impression of a passing moment, whose meaning is as enigmatic as it is poignant. Stieglitz gives his print a monumental power, a weight, that is the very opposite: a column of black smoke assumes iron authority.

Lightness and weight, the momentary and the enduring: right from its invention at the close of the Romantic age, photography displayed these extreme possibilities in its nature. The oldest photograph in the V&A collection is an ethereal silvery phantom of a London street in 1839, taken using Louis Daguerre's pioneering method in the year he made it public. By the 1850s photographers were shooting such diverse masterpieces as Robert Howlett's 1857 portrait of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, cigar at the corner of his mouth, tall hat on his head, the chains of the Great Eastern falling into Miltonic darkness behind him, and John Murray's icily majestic panorama of the Taj Mahal, taken in about 1855. The camera could capture the craggily real – Brunel lives for ever in his portrait – or the stupendously beautiful.

It is hard to tear your eyes from these early photographs. There is something so still and ethereal about their long exposures, so haunting about seeing, up close, the bumps on the skin of a Victorian like Alfred Tennyson in a portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron. The V&A opened in 1857 and was the first museum in the world to collect photographs – so it has some remarkable things from that age including a gorgeous still life of Venetian goblets on shelves presented by its patron Prince Albert. With its exquisite, uncluttered choice of such superlative prints, this new gallery fulfils the wildest dreams of Prince Albert and pays homage to the sheer beauty of great photographs. Today, with the camera more universal than ever, this is bound to be a popular part of the museum – on the press day frustrated visitors kept trying to beg entry, unable to wait for the opening – and perhaps what it will offer most of all is a resource, a reservoir of some of the most powerful and glorious camera works of all time, to inspire today's practitioners.

The gallery only covers photography up to the 1960s. The museum says that afterwards there was a "shift" in the nature of the medium. We all know how incredibly diverse photography is today, from CCTV images to pictures taken on phones. But has it ever been any less diverse?

Far from a stable and simple golden age of photography when everyone knew what a camera was for and artistic excellence was easily defined, this gallery reveals the camera's first 130 years to be as restless and experimental as anything since.

A landscape by Ansel Adams takes your breath away in a manner quite alien to the magnified stilled milk splash photographed by American experimentalist Harold Edgerton in 1957 (the only colour print here).

This is a sumptuous gallery in which you could spend days meditating on the apparently limitless potential for poetry and emotion in what – by the time you leave – it seems absurd to call a mechanical way of making pictures.

• This article was amended on 25 October 2011. The original referred to the magnified stilled milk splash photographed by British experimentalist Harold Edgerton. This has been corrected. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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