Clark: The Museum and the Photograph

The Clark Art Institute crackled with activity this week as it premiered an impressive new exhibition. “The Museum and the Photograph: Collecting Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1853-1900” presents an important chapter in the history of photography as a fully-realized art.

The exhibition celebrates the symbiosis between England’s influential Victoria and Albert Museum and the fledgling art of photography. According to the Clark display, the Victoria and Albert was the first museum “to implement a systematic collection of photographs, to create an independent photography department and to host an international exhibition of photography.”

As the museum helped photo art gain acceptance, photography helped the museum blossom. The Victoria and Albert was a new institution which benefited greatly from actively pursuing photographic art and presenting it to an eager audience.

In fact, the very first pictures one sees at the Clark exhibit detail the construction of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Crucially, Charles Thurston Thompson, the museum’s first Superintendent of Photography, treats these pictures not as documents but as art. His photographs create explicit visual planes stretching the image and the eye along bold perspective lines.

Thompson’s success paved the way for other photographers supported by the Victoria and Albert. Artists were dispatched to exotic locations ranging from Granada to Beirut. They returned with remarkable photographs depicting major landmarks.

Many of the photographs on display have a similarly documentary quality, depicting everything from pastoral life to dilapidated London inns.

Crowd members expressed a preference for the more overtly artistic photographs. Gustave LeGray’s seascapes “seemed panoramic,” as one attendee noted, although they were taken with a traditional lens.

Also popular were Julia Margaret Cameron’s interpretations of religious subjects through portraits of infants. One viewer praised her use of soft focus as “ahead of its time,” while another admired the fact that “[Cameron] really captures the tenderness of the children.”

Eadweard Muybridge’s plates capturing identical series of shots from different angles struck an especially strong chord. Although initially intended as instructional aides, these works remain compelling for their deliberate, unique examination of technique and perspective as essential aspects of photography.

The exhibit’s opening is well-timed. It coincides with the publication of Photography: An Independent Art, a book highlighting Victoria and Albert Museum photography from 1836 to the present. The author, Mark Haworth-Booth, Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, also worked in conjunction with the Clark and Anne McCauley, Professor of Art at Massachusetts University, in publishing a catalogue of the exhibit. Haworth-Booth delivered a lecture introducing the exhibit to art students at the Clark Thursday evening.

The extensive planning seems to have paid off. Security guards reported solid attendance from Williamstown citizens; audience response was positive with regards to the exhibit as a whole and the art itself.

Director of the Clark Art Institute Michael Conforti summed up the appeal of the exhibit in a recent press release. He says “with ‘The Museum and the Photograph,’ we touch on issues about the definition of art…what’s utterly fascinating about the show is the fact that many of the photographs considered documentary and instructive in the 19th century would very much be considered works of art today.”

Indeed, “The Museum and the Photograph” has a timeless quality about it: while the purpose and methods of photography may have changed over the years, its impact as an art form remains indelible and immediate.

The exhibit will stay at the Clark only until Apr. 26th. It is well worth the trek to the museum, as it provides an intimate look not only at the importance of photography, but the importance of the museum as well.