Life Through The Lens: A Trail Of Photography Collections And Galleries

By Richard Moss | 23 October 2003
shows a photo from the series Strictly, 1991 by Jason Evans

Photo: from the series Strictly, 1991. Jason Evans. As featured in the Brighton Photo Biennial 2003 in 'Make Life Beautiful! at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Picture courtesy of the artist.

We have put together a trail of some of the best photography galleries, collections and exhibition spaces in the UK. The trail begins in London, just around the corner from Leicester Square.

The Photographer's Gallery, on two sites in Great Newport Street, is dedicated solely to the medium of photography.

The gallery has done more than most to establish photography as an artistic medium in the UK and was the first in the country to show the work of key names such as André Kertesz, Jaques-Henri Lartigue and Irving Penn.

There is an emphasis on the facilitating of new work by emerging artists, both from Britain and abroad, in the form of commissions and an exhibitions programme whilst the history of photography is thoroughly covered through exhibitions such as Francesca Woodman, Robert Capa, Gordon Parks and Garry Winogrand.

Most of the exhibitions are integrated with educational events and every year, the Gallery hosts and produces the Citibank Photography Prize – now recognised as one of the most important international art awards, and another reason why the gallery remains at the forefront in the nurturing of new talent.

shows a portrait of Clarence White by AL Coburn, 1905.

Photo:Portrait of Clarence White by A L Coburn 1905. from the exhibition, Unknown Pleasures: Unwrapping the Royal Photographic Society Collection. Courtesy Royal Photographic Society

Another integral collection can be explored at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. Here a vast archive traces the development of the medium from the earliest work of William Henry Fox Talbot through to the photographic masterpieces of Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson.

Recently bolstered by the arrival of the Royal Photographic Society’s archive, (formerly held at the society’s HQ in Bath) it’s a collection that reflects the multiple identities of photography and, according to the museum, allows it to “present different accounts of the impact of the image on Society.”

The museum is also strong on photographic technology and as home to the Kodak Collection has one of the best holdings of cameras and associated photographic equipment anywhere in the world.

Anyone interested in this technical side of photography may wish to visit the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, Wiltshire for the world's largest holding of documents relating to the invention and discovery of the photographic negative by WH Fox- Talbot in 1835.

The ground floor permanent display is devoted to the life and work of the great inventor and scientist, whilst the upper exhibition gallery space shows a wide range of contemporary and historical displays of photography.

These take in some important early examples of the medium from the man himself as well as fine works by other innovators such as Cecil Beaton, Constance and Elizabeth Fielding and John Chester Earle.

During photography’s halcyon days in the mid 19th century, holidaymakers, proud parents and even royalty would queue outside photographic institutions all over the country to sit for the perfect souvenir. Though not cheap, photography quickly became an accessible art form that anyone could enjoy.

At Bodelwyddan Castle in north Wales, this peculiarly Victorian obsession with photographic portraiture is explored in one of three permanent displays.

A regional partner of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the castle's photography gallery features The Artist's Studio - a series of mises en scènes based upon five self-portraits in the collection; A Sense of Occasion - an interactive exploration of three group portraits; and Portraits for All - the aforementioned exploration of the mass production of portrait photographs during the Victorian period.

shows a portrait of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony

Photo: Oscar Wilde, Napoleon Sarony, 1882, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

Back in the capital, the National Portrait Gallery itself boasts an impressive archive of original images. The Photographs Collection consists of over 220,000 original images dating from the 1840s to the present day.

Representing some of the biggest names in portrait photography, many works from the collection are on permanent display at the gallery where you can come face-to-face with the likes of Tennyson, Twiggy, Meera Syal and Millais.

The rest of this massive collection can be examined on the gallery’s interactive portrait explorer database or face to face – but by appointment only.

London is also home to some important photographic archives, featuring literally thousands of important images and transparencies. Most of these can be accessed by appointment or through dedicated websites.

The British Library is of course one of the most comprehensive holdings of books and documents in the world, but this recently refurbished and ever cherished hoard is also home to an impressive photography collection.

This is most apparent in the Oriental and India Office Collections: Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. Amongst the Mughal miniatures and South Asian artworks are some 220,000 historical photographs relating to the subcontinent.

The collection is open 2.30-5.00, Monday to Friday but visitors must make an appointment.

shows a photo of men of the 1st / 4th East Lancs in a sap-head at Givenchy, January 28, 1918.

Photo: men of the 1st / 4th East Lancs in a sap-head at Givenchy, January 28, 1918. Picture courtesy and © Imperial War Museum

In a similar vein, the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth boasts a similarly large holding of photographs containing over six million images – many relating to the two world wars, but also spanning the entire twentieth century.

Much of this archive is open to researchers via the Visitors Room, open by appointment on Monday - Friday 10:00am to 5:00pm. Access is free of charge and staff are on hand to advise and help.

At the Science and Society Picture Library, next to the Science Museum in Kensington’s Exhibition Road, there is a vast and fascinating archive.

Representing the photographic collections of The Science Museum, The National Railway Museum and the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, the library was set up as a business resource to raise funding for the aforementioned museums.

Members of the public who wish to visit are welcome but they need to call ahead for an appointment – on 020 7942 4400.

shows a photo by Tony Ray Jones

Photo: just one of thousands - an image from the NMPFT collections. © NMPFT/TonyRay Jones/SSPL

If you’re interested in researching the history of photojournalism then a visit to the Newsroom Archive and Visitor Centre of the Guardian and Observer newspapers in London is also a must.

As well as materials relating to the histories of both papers, including the archive of Observer photographer Jane Bown, there is also an extensive photographic library that tells the history of photojournalism relating to both papers (dating back in the Guardian's case to its Manchester days).

The visitor centre is also home to a lively programme of exhibitions – many of which are photography-based.

Moving back to galleries and a collection that encompasses examples from the halcyon days of photography right through to the present day, the Photography Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London offers a fascinating glimpse into an important national collection.

First established in1852 and now home to over 300,000 images the Photography Gallery showcases around 50 outstanding photographs on a rotating basis at any one time.

Illustrating a wide range of processes, techniques and imagery from classic and contemporary photographers, the V&A is a good place to get a handle on the development and history of photography.

Shows leapfroging men from Animal Locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge.

Photo: leapfroging men from Animal Locomotion, Eadweard Muybridge. © Victoria & Albert Museum.

Beyond the vast national collections and archives there are of course some strong regional holdings dotted around the UK that combine training and education facilities with excellent exhibition programmes and equally impressive photographic archives.

At Cardiff’s Ffotogallery, Wales’s premier arts organization dedicated to the promotion and presentation of photography and digital arts, visitors can explore another collection that represents a thriving local artistic scene operating at the cutting edge of contemporary photography.

The gallery aims to look at all forms of photography, and hosts a wide range of exhibitions that focus on documentary as well as more expansive uses of the form, including projection, digital and other lens-based practices.

Also the current custodians of the Turner House Gallery in Penarth, Ffotogallery will be using the space as an additional exhibition and educational outreach facility for photography alongside its Cardiff base.

For an excellent photography gallery with a bold commitment to realism you may wish to take a trip north to take in a unique holding situated within the shadow of Newcastle’s famous Tyne Bridge.

Side Gallery was established in the early seventies to showcase the art of documentary photography and has since gained an international reputation for hosting exhibitions by some of the world’s most influential photographers.

In addition the gallery has an ever-growing archive of work by local photographers, many of who are committed to celebrating the life and culture of the working class communities of the North East.

A continuation and development of the socially realistic strand in documentary photography remains central to the gallery and the group to this day.

shows Clydesdale Road 1971, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.

Photo: Clydesdale Road 1971, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. One of the archive held at Side Gallery, from a series of pictures taken between 1969 and 1982. © the artist, courtesy Side Gallery.

Another vibrant and contemporary exhibition space that doubles as a training and resource centre can be found back in the capital, this time south of the river, at Photofusion in the heart of Brixton.

Over the last decade, this innovative gallery has metamorphosed from a small collective of documentary photographers into a large and important resource for photographic artists – offering a membership scheme with access to tutoring, equipment and darkrooms.

Its gallery space boasts a well-earned reputation for showcasing innovative new forms in the medium whilst successfully promoting diversity in the photographic arts.

shows an interior shot of the white-walled, wooden-floored Impressions Gallery.

Photo: the very best in contemporary photography and digital media - Impressions Gallery. Courtesy of Impressions Gallery.

Another gallery active in promoting innovative work and new photographic technologies can be found in York.

Impressions Gallery is one of the first specialist contemporary galleries to be established anywhere in Europe and since opening in 1972 it has become a leading international exhibition space – both for photography and digital art.

Boasting a bold programme of exhibitions and touring shows (consisting of international, national and regional artists), the gallery also works towards providing the local community with the very best in contemporary photography and digital media.

Education resources include an interesting mix of talks, outreach, interpretation, professional development and audience development.

There is a similarly dynamic set up at the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh, which was established in 1977 as the city’s specialist photographic centre and gallery.

This is the place where 'photography and creative technology meets contemporary art' and this is reflected in an adventurous approach to exhibitions and tutoring.

Now recognised as one of Scotland’s leading centres for research, production and exhibition of contemporary art, Stills Gallery manages to inspire by promoting both existing and emerging technologies in photography.

Shows a portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Photo: the life of pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron can be explored at her former home, Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library.

We finish our trail by journeying back to a time when photography was a young but equally complicated scientific process, when Julia Margaret Cameron’s stunning composed images represented one of the first uses of the medium for pure artistic expression.

In 1860 Cameron bought two adjacent cottages on the Isle of Wight, turned them into one home and called it Dimbola Lodge. Three years later, at the age of 48, she was given her first camera. After converting the fowl-house into a studio, she built a dark room and produced some of early photography's most striking images.

Now run as a museum by the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, the Grade II listed building boasts the largest permanent display of her work on show in this country.

As well as organising various temporary photographic exhibitions, the museum also holds a display of historic camera equipment used through the ages.

Of course this is just an overview of the major collections held in the UK and museums all over the country will have examples of great historic and contemporary photography.

Click on this link for a rundown of some of the best online locations to view photography collections.

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