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Decisive moments: the history of photography at the V&A

How photographers from 1845 to the present have reflected time

Mark Haworth Booth, chief curator of photography at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) has chosen time, a defining aspect of the photographic medium, as the theme for the millennial exhibition at the Canon Photography Gallery. It reveals yet again how the V&A was buying photographs before most museums in the US had even been founded, and it includes many of the most recent acquisitions as well.

Breathless: photography and time” charts how different photographers from 1845 to the present have pondered time and its meaning. The title refers to a recent series of colour photographs by Bettina Von Zwehl in which her subjects hold their breath for ninety seconds, for her to capture the stress thereby induced. The exhibition is accompanied by a special issue of the photography magazine, Aperture, published in New York.

Unlike so many other millennial exhibitions, “Breathless” does not concern itself, except incidentally, with great historical events. Thus, Josef Koudelka’s ominous wristwatch hanging above an empty Wenceslas Square, marking the time of a banned demonstration in the Prague Spring of 1968, or Shomei Tomatsu’s photogravure, “Nagasaki: watch stopped at 11.02”, only appear because they feature timepieces, as do several other photographs, including Louis Stettner’s, “Diner, New York”, 1952, Abelardo Morell’s, “Camera obscura image of Boston’s Old Custom House in hotel room”, 1999 or, even, Mark Klett’s marvellous, “Byron checking the position of the moon with his laptop, Flaming Gorge, Wyoming, 8/8/97”.

Among the early work is an albumen print by Stephen Ayling, “Westminster, Henry II chapel and clock tower”, 1868, which was purchased that year and shows Big Ben soon after completion and another albumen print by Roger Fenton, “Drawing by Holbein for a clock, British Museum, 1858”.

Rare calotypes by pioneering amateur photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn, whose “Caswell Bay, 1853, waves breaking” first captured the movement of waves, illustrate duration and movement, while growth comes alive in four gorgeous albumen prints by Edward Fox from his “Anatomy of foliage” (around 1865), picturing the same two trees, and ash and an elm, in summer and in winter. Yet another early acquisition (1865) is an anonymous albumen print of “Saint Mark’s Cathedral and courtyard of Palazzo Ducale, Venice” (1850s-60s), showing the ornate staircase and the clock face on the side of the basilica.

Geffrey Bevington’s “Three wool dressers at work, Neckinger Mills, Bermondsey, London”, 1860s, opens a window onto time by recording pre-industrial working processes. Eadweard Muybridge’s famous, pre-cinematic time and motion studies from “Animal locomotion”, 1887, find a logical space in the show and as always, Mr Haworth-Booth has been at pains to display less obvious examples from the V&A’s complete set of calotypes, acquired from the photographer by subscription in 1889.

Two famous Frenchmen—Eugene Atget, with one of his celebrated Parisian interiors from around 1903, and Jacques Henri Lartigue, with his vivacious “My cousin Bichonnade”, 1905—usher in the twentieth century with its accelerating changes. They are followed by a famous pair of photographers, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston pictured by an anonymous Mexican photographer in 1924, and by another celebrated Frenchman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, with his “Behind the Gare St Lazare, Paris”, 1932, whose figure leaping over and reflected in a puddle typifies his notion of the “Decisive moment”.

The context of time in photography would be incomplete without Harold “Doc” Edgerton, the noted Massachusetts Institute of Technology boffin who invented the stroboscope and froze bullets, athletes, birds and many other objects in motion. He is naturally the single most represented photographer here, with nine of his most elegant works (if not his magnificent picture of Stonehenge, a test site for his airplane flash later used to determine the location of World War II’s D-day landings).

Also related to time is the theme of everyday life, the snapshots used to commemorate its cycles, from birth, baptism and infancy, through childhood, dating, weddings, family anniversaries, the ageing process (as recorded by three photographs of the four Brown sisters, including the photographer’s wife, pictured by Nicolas Nixon in 1975, 1988 and 1999), to funerals and burials).

A recurrent motif is water, from an 1845 daguerreotype of a waterfall by Horatio Ross to Minor White’s “Edge of ice and water” of 1960 or Abelardo Morell’s impeccable, four-minute exposure, “Water pouring out of a pot”, 1994, to the latest, almost liquid images of nebulae from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Although Fox-Talbot, the “father of photography”, is an important omission, two specially commissioned installations by Heather Ackroyd and Daniel Harvey, “Snake in the grass” and “Mother and child”, employ something akin to his “natural magic”.

Without paper or chemicals, they return, literally, to the roots of the medium. Their unique images are made from grass grown from seed that, as it grows, records by photosynthesis, in subtle tones of yellow and green produced by chlorophyll, the shadings of a projected negative. These works of living art give out the scent of grass and evoke many primal associations, project art into nature and nature into art, while their transient quality makes us acutely aware of the passing of time.