Whenever i'm in Amsterdam i head to Foam, the city's museum of photography. Out of habit mostly. I actually think that Huis Marseille's programme is often bolder and more relevant to my own interests but this month Foam has a show titled Primrose - Russian Colour Photography and the word "Russia" always does it for me. The exhibition charts Russia's attempts to produce coloured photographic images from the 1860s to 1970s. Room after rooms, the visitor realizes that photography is a cogent filter to reveal the history of a country in the course of a century.

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Dmitry Baltermants, Men's talk, 1950s

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Photo of the exhibition opening © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

You can read a text written by curator Olga Sviblova over here. It presents with great clarity the changes in technology and the socio-political vicissitudes Russia went through during the early days of colour photography. Not only am i no expert in Russian history nor photography techniques but i'm also an ultra lazy blogger. I hope you will excuse me if i just sum up (but mostly cut/copy/paste) Sviblova's words below:

Colour became widespread in Russian photography in the 1860s. At the time, colour was added to photographic prints manually using watercolour and oil paints. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Russia was undergoing two opposing trends: active europeanisation and search for a national identity that translated into tinted photographs that portrayed people wearing national costumes -- Russian, Tatar, Caucasian, Ukrainian, etc.

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V. Yankovsky "In memory of my military service". Saint Petersburg. Beginning of 1910s Collodion, painting Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © Moscow House of Photography Museum

The photographic documentation of life in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century acquired the status of a State objective. In May 1909 Tsar Nicholas II gave an audience to the photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky who, in 1902, had announced a technique for creating colour photographs by combining shots taken successively through light filters coloured blue, green and red. Delighted with this invention, Emperor Nicholas II commissioned the photographer to take colour photographs of life in the various regions of the Empire.

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Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, Portrait of Lev Tolstoy, 25 May 1908

Meanwhile autochrome pictures by the Lumière brothers, with whom Prokudin-Gorsky worked after emigrating to France, became very popular in early 20th-century Russia. Autochromes, colour transparencies on a glass backing, could be viewed against the light, or projected with the aid of special apparatus. They were used by Pyotr Vedenisov, a nobleman whose hobby was to photograph his own family life. The private image later provided an excellent description of the typical lifestyle enjoyed at the time by educated Russian noblemen.

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Piotr Vedenisov, Kolya Kozakov and the Dog Gipsy. Yalta. 1910-1911 Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow / Moscow House of Photography Museum

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Piotr Vedenisov, Vera Kozakov in Folk Dress. 1914, Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow / Moscow House of Photography Museum

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Piotr Vedenisov. Tania, Natasha, Kolia and Liza Kozakov, Vera Nikolayevna Vedenisov and Elena Frantsevna Bazilev. Yalta, 1910-1911

The onset of the First World War in 1914 and October Revolution in 1917 reduced to ruins the Russia whose memory is preserved in the tinted photographs and autochromes of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Vladimir Lenin and the new Soviet government saw photography as an important propaganda weapon for a country where 70% of the population were unable to read or write. From the mid-1920s photomontage, used as an ideological 'visual weapon', was widespread in the Soviet Union, enthusiastically encouraged by the Bolsheviks.

From the mid-1920s Alexander Rodchenko regenerated the forgotten technique of hand colouring his own photographs. In 1937, at the height of Stalin's repression, Rodchenko began photographing classical ballet and opera, using the arsenal of his aesthetic opponents, the Russian pictorialists, who by that time were subject to harsh repression. For Alexander Rodchenko soft focus, classical subject matter and toning typical of pictorial photography were a mediated way of expressing his internal escapism and tragic disillusionment with the Soviet utopia.

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Alexander Rodchenko. Race. "Dynamo" Stadium. 1935. Artist's gelatine silver print, gouache. Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © A. Rodchenko - V. Stepanova Archive © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum

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Varvara Stepanova, Red Army Men, photomontage for "Abroad" magazine, 1930 collection B Ignatovich

In 1932 general rules for socialist realism were published in the USSR, as the only creative method for all forms of art, including photographic. Soviet art had to reflect Soviet myths about the happiest people in the happiest country, not real life and real people.

In 1936 both Agfa and Kodak introduced colour film but Second World War delayed their broad distribution to the amateur photography market. In the USSR colour photography only appeared at the end of the war.

Until the mid-1970s, in the USSR negative film for printing colour photographs was a luxury only available to a few official photographers who worked for major Soviet publications. All of them were obliged to follow the canons of socialist realism and practise staged reportage.

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Yakov Khalip. Sea cadets. End of 1940s. © Moscow House of Photography Museum

From the late 1950s, in the Khrushchev Thaw after the debunking of Stalin's cult of personality, the canons of socialist realism softened and permitted a certain freedom in aesthetics, allowing photography to move closer to reality.

In the postwar period, during the 1950s to 1960s life gradually improved and coloured souvenir photo portraits again appeared on the mass market. They were usually produced by unknown and 'unofficial' photographers, since private photo studios that used to carry out such commissions were now forbidden, and the State exercised a total monopoly on photography by the 1930s.

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Dmitry Baltermants, Portrait of Olympic champion Yury Vlasov, 1960. Installation shot by Foam

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Dmitry Baltermants Show-window. Beginning of 1970s Colour print Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © Dmitry Baltermants Archive © Moscow House of Photography Museum

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Dmitry Baltermants Meeting in the tundra. From the "Meetings with Chukotka" series. 1972 Colour print Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © Dmitry Baltermants Archive © Moscow House of Photography Museum

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Dmitri Baltermants, Rain, 1960s

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Dmitry Baltermants. Moscow. 1960s. Museum 'Moscow House of Photography'

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Robert Diament. He has turned her head. Beginning of 1960s. Colour print. Collection of Moscow House of Photography Museum © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow/ Moscow House of Photography Museum

Boris Mikhailov copied, enlarged and tinted these kitsch photo souvenirs to supplement his income at his photo lab in the early 1970s. Revealing and deconstructing the nature of Soviet myths in the process.

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Boris Mikhailov, From the series Luriki, end of 1970s - beginning of 1980s

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Boris Mikhailov, Untitled (from the series Luriki), 1971-1985

Colour transparency film, which could be developed even in domestic surroundings, appeared on the Soviet mass market in the 1960s and 1970s. It was widely used by amateurs, who created transparencies that could be viewed at home with a slide projector. An unofficial art form emerging in the USSR at this time developed the aesthetics and means for a new artistic conceptualisation of reality, quite different from the socialist realism that still prevailed, although somewhat modified.

More than half a century of Soviet power after the 1917 Revolution radically altered Russia. The photographer was certainly not required or even allowed to take nude studies as corporeality and sexuality were seen as inherent signs of an independent individual. In photographing Suzi Et Cetera Boris Mikhailov disrupts the norms and reveals characters, his own and that of his subjects. It was impossible to show these shots in public, but slides could be projected at home, in the workshops of his artist friends or the often semi-underground clubs of the scientific and technical intelligentsia, who began to revive during Khrushchev's Thaw after the Stalinist repression. Boris Mikhailov's slide projections are now analogous to the apartment exhibitions of unofficial art. By means of colour he displayed the dismal standardisation and squalor of surrounding life, and his slide performances helped to unite people whose consciousness and life in those years began to escape from the dogmatic network of Soviet ideology, which permitted only one colour -- red.

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Photo of the exhibition opening © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

More photos in Le Journal de la Photographie and Multimedia Art Museum Moscow.
Primrose - Russian Colour Photography is at Foam in Amsterdam until 3 April 2013.

Related posts: Soviet Photomontages 1917-1953 and
Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits.

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There is a spectacularly informative and macabre exhibition at the London Museum right now. Its title is suggestive enough: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

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Skull saw, c. 1831-1870 © Science Museum, Science & Society Picture Library

Resurrection men were body snatchers who often worked in gangs to steal corpses from mortuaries and to dig up recently buried corpses to supply anatomy schools with bodies to dissect and study. Unsurprisingly, the poor, often hastily buried, were easier to unearth and carry to the nearest anatomy school.

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only bodies that hospitals were legally allowed to use for surgeon training were the ones of executed criminals. And because the gallows only provided surgeons and anatomy schools with a few bodies each year, the medical profession had to resort to illegal means to get a practical understanding of human anatomy. Surgery was a dirty and agonizing affair back then. There was no anaesthetic nor antiseptic and even if the operation went well, the patient could still die from shock, loss of blood or infection. Surgeons had to be fast, their gesture confident and for that, they needed bodies on which to practice.

Some resurrection men were more unscrupulous than other. A handful even killed people to provide the corpses needed for surgery practice. The most famous case was the one of Thomas Williams and John Bishop who murdered 16 people and sold the bodies of their victims to science. They were convicted in 1831 and the irony is that after their execution, their own corpses ended up on the surgeon's table. The exhibition is showing fragments of their tattooed skin and even a slice of the brain of infamous body snatcher and murderer William Burke.

To end the ensuing public hysteria, the parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832. It expanded the legal supply of bodies to "unclaimed" corpse from hospitals, workhouses or prisons. Once, again, it was the poor who usually ended up on the anatomy lesson table.

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Fragment of tattooed skin from John Bishop or Thomas Williams. Photograph: Science Museum

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Amputation saw, reputedly the property of the English surgeon George 'Graveyard' Walker, c. 1800. Courtesy Science Museum, Science and Society

Because they feared to have their body or the body of a loved one stolen by resurrection men, people defended their right to 'rest in peace' by being buried in gilded iron coffin, outfitted with locks, and graveyards were protected by fearsome "man-traps", loaded pistols with trip-wire, etc.

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19th-century man trap © Museum of London (image History Extra)

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Classes with direct contact with contagious diseases were not feasible so models were used instead. Joseph Towne made hundreds of wax samples, cast from living patients, in order to aid the students' study (image BBC news)

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Dissection hooks © Science Museum, Science & Society Picture Library

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Post-mortem instruments, c1850 © The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

The exhibition starts on firm historical ground but by the third room you realize that the theme finds an echo in 21st century Britain. First of all because Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men was inspired by a recent event: the finding in 2006 of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. They remains excavated by archaeologists showed marks of dissection, autopsy and amputation, along with skeletons of animals dissected for comparative anatomy. The discovery suggests that the hospital dissected the body of diseased patients for surgery practice both before and after it was legal to do so.

The second reason is that the Anatomy Act was only replaced in 2004 by the Human Tissue Act which ensures that access to corpses for medical science in the UK is now regulated by the Human Tissue Authority. But even today, demands for bodies to either dissect or use as a source of organ for transplantation far exceeds the offer.

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, as you can guess, often verges on the gruesome but it is also remarkably instructive and engaging. I'm leaving you with a few more images from the show, starting with the work that impressed me the most:

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Conservator Jill Barnard installs the 19th-century anatomical plaster cast of convicted murderer James Legg. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Anatomy classes also took part at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1801, 3 artists demonstrated that most depictions of the Crucifixion were anatomically incorrect. With the assistance of a surgeon, they acquired the body of a criminal and nailed it into position, flayed to remove all skin and then cast in plaster. The cast was never intended as a work of art but is otherwise on display at the Royal Academy of Art.

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The Superficial muscles of the thorax and the axilla, 1876. Photo Wellcome Library

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Female wax anatomic model showing internal organs, 1818. Courtesy Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library

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Front view of dissection table © Science Museum, Science & Society Picture Library

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Female momento mori © Science Museum, Science & Society Picture Library

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Excavation of tightly packed burials from the later part of the hospital cemetery. Photo Museum of London Archaeology

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View of the exhibition space (image Visit London)

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View of the exhibition space (image BBC news)

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men is up until April 14 at the Museum of London.

Related story: Brains: The Mind as Matter.

Probably my favourite photo at Artissima art fair in Turin last week:

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Arnold Odermatt, Vierwaldstättersee, 1972

I wrote briefly about Arnold Odermatt in the past but i'm glad that the Springer Berlin gallery chose to highlight his work for Back to the Future, the fair's (utterly brilliant) section dedicated to artists active in the '60s and '70s.

Odermatt never studied photography. He was a traffic policeman in Switzerland and part of his job consisted in taking photographs of road accidents and of other members of the police at work. From 1948 till 1990, when he retired, he would make one set for the insurance or police reports and a second one for himself.

His photos of accidents are sometimes compared to the ones taken by Weegee, Mell Kilpatrick or Enrique Metenides who chronicled accidents, scenes of violence, suicides for newspapers or pulp magazines.

Odermatt obviously had a very different job but the settings for the car crashes and other accidents he documented makes his work even more distinctive. More scenic, with a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere. In the policeman's photos, the horror seems to be under the spell of the elegant landscape.

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Arnold Odermatt, Hergiswil, 1982

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Arnold Odermatt, Hergiswil, 1982

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Oberdorf, 1965

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Stans, 1965

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Buochs, 1965

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Stansstad, 1966

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Oberdorf, 1982

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Arnold Odermatt, Stansstad, 1973

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Stansstad, 1952

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Buochs, 1965

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Oberdorf, 1964

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Arnold Odermatt, Buochs

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Arnold Odermatt, Stansstad, 1963

Previously: Karambolage.

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Context Is Half the Work, quoted from 'Structure in Events', 1972

Between the Frieze art fair, the Brighton Photo Biennial, and various commitments i had in town, mid-October was a marathon to see as many shows as possible. The one that left its marks on my brain is The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79 at Raven Row. The retrospective of the pioneering artists' organisation is thought-provoking, informative, surprising and it confirmed what i was starting to suspect: the art scene of the 1970s was intimidatingly radical and exciting.

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Artist Placement Group, Between 6, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1971. Courtesy Barbara Stevini

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Artist Placement Group, or APG, was established by Barbara Steveni and John Latham in 1966. They were joined Barry Flanagan, David Hall, Anna Ridley and Jeffrey Shaw, among others. Its aim was to widen the social context of artists' work by finding them 'residencies' in the private and public sectors.

Between 1966 and the turn of the 1980s, APG negotiated approximately fifteen placements for artists lasting from a few weeks to several years; first within industries (often large corporations such as British Steel and ICI) and later within UK government departments such as the Department of Health and the Scottish Office.

APG arranged that artists would work to an 'open brief', whereby their placements were not required to produce tangible results, but that the engagement itself could potentially benefit both host organisations as well as the artists in the long-term.

Instead of commissioning art works, the host organizations were asked to pay the artist wages and in exchange, they would benefit from the artist's reports, ideas and insights.

Unsurprisingly, few organizations were enthusiastic about APG's ideas. Many flatly refused to welcome the experiment, others only opened their doors after several meetings and exchanges of letters.

Some placements were more successful than others (whether we look at them as artworks per se or as the result of a mutually fruitful exchange between radical art and industry.) I found David Hall's work for Scottish Television absolutely brilliant. In 1971 Hall made ten "Interruptions" broadcast intentionally unannounced and uncredited on Scottish Television. Seven of these works were later distributed on video as TV Interruptions (7 TV Pieces), and are regarded as a landmark of British video art.

The interruptions are shown on separate screens at Raven Row. There's a video of the Tap interruption online but it cannot be embedded. There's another one here.

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David Hall, TV Interruptions broadcast unannounced by Scottish TV, 1971

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David Hall, TV Interruptions, TV Shoot-out piece, 1971

Garth Evans took a fellowship at the British Steel Corporation. The photos he took as part of his observational notes were published in a book produced by BSC. He also made steel sculptures similar to the constructions made by apprentice welders.

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Garth Evans, Frame, 1970

After a traffic accident, John Latham found himself in the Intensive Care of Clare Hall Hospital with broken ribs, torn muscles and puncturated lungs. He soon found out that by rotating his body in bed he could clear his throat of lung tissues without having to endure the pain of coughing. The X-rays documenting his rapid convalescence lend credence to the artist's claim that his technique was an improvement over usual procedures.

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John Latham, 1970

APG pioneered the shift in art practice from studio and conventional art system to more active and processed-based forms of social engagement. It bears similarities with Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization established to develop collaborations between artists and engineers but APG's agenda was more deeply anchored in political and social concerns.

The residencies are also different from the ones that predominate nowadays (where the artist might sometimes seem to be at the service of the commissioning corporation or governmental body), the ones initiated by APG fostered a two-way communication between artists and industrialists or politicians.

While researching the APG, i found this trailer for a short documentary by Laurie Yule & Calum Mackenzie:


Inside Outside: A History of The Artist Placement Group

The Raven Row show is mostly based on archives: films, photographs, reports written by artists during their placement and exchanges of letters between artists and host companies and sometimes in art objects.

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Photos on flickr.

The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79 was curated by Antony Hudek and Alex Sainsbury, in consultation with Barbara Steveni. It remains on view until 16 December 2012 at Raven Row in London.

A quick, frustrated post about an exhibition i saw while in Amsterdam for the conference Blogging the City. Quick and frustrated because the show is as charming as it is bonkers but i could only find tiny images online to illustrate it.

The show is at the Melkweg Gallery, probably my favourite place in town to see photo exhibitions and it pays homage to the recently deceased Frits Gerritsen.

Gerritsen was a commercial photographer, a travel photographer, a theater photographer, a portrait photographer with a keen eye for the elegance of the human body and for the absurd.

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This one is the photo used for the poster of the exhibition. I was sold immediately:

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Lenie Gerritsen reads to her three sons in the master bedroom, 1961

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Toon Hermans having a stroll with his white rabbit

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De werelden van Frits Gerritsen is at the Melkweg gallery in Amsterdam until October 7, 2012.
A few more photos over here.

I must have been pretty desperate for distraction the day i went to see Island Stories: Fifty Years of Photography in Britain at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This Summer now seems like it has been a long, relentless photo exhibition dedicated to London, England and/or Great Britain. I thought that even an anglophile like me wouldn't stomach yet another exhibition celebrating the joys and wonder of the country. But Island Stories: Fifty Years of Photography in Britain is such a gem of a little show, i'm on my way to see it for the second time. Incidentally, i'm left hoping that one day my own country will develop such propensity for navel-gazing, but that's another story.

Drawn exclusively from the V&A collections, this display features a selection of more than 80 photographs made in the UK since the 1950s. It focuses on individual projects, each of which tells a story. Collectively, they give a picture of life in Britain that reflects upon subjects ranging from landscape and industry to family and community.

There are work by Jeremy Deller, by Don McCullin and by Martin Paar but most photographers were new to me. I loved the show and i'll keep the comment short:

Maurice Broomfield's prints of post-war British industry are particularly fascinating. For 30 years, his images celebrated as much as they documented the labour of factory workers. Most photo series were commissioned by industrial clients. Most of them I suspect have now outsourced their assembly lines to other shores.

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Nylon Stocking Testing, British Nylon Spinners, Pontypool, Wales, 1957

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Preparing a Warp, British Nylon Spinners, Pontypool, Wales, 1964

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Somerset wire company, wire manufacture, late 1950s

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Test spraying foam insulation, Shell International, 1963

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Cooling tower under construction, 1954

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Bottling Salad Cream, Crosse and Blackwell, Bermondsey, London, 1951

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Combing a Guard's Bearskin. The workshop of J Compton, Sons and Webb, London, 1957

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Fryolux Solder Paint operator, Fry's Factory, Bermondsey, London

I think you're not supposed to laugh at this one:

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Checking a transformer, English Electric, Stafford

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Taper roller bearing, Daventry works of British Timpkin, 1957

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Paper Making, Bowater Paper Company, Thames Mill, Nothfleet, 1960

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Electric Arc Cutting Inside a Boiler, T Ward, 1958

Elsbeth Juda's 1952 series Milling around Lancashire also takes the factory floors as its main setting and the photos are as staged and polished as Broomfield's. This time however, the industrial context serves only as a backdrop for fashion shoots.

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Elsbeth Juda, from the series 'Milling around Lancashire', 1952

The text accompanying Grace Robertson's photos at the museum says "Using a compact Leica camera, Robertson was able to capture the unrestrained and unselfconscious mood of a women's annual pub outing." Annual? I'd better keep the snarky comment to myself. The photo below is based on this one by Kurt Hutton. But Robertson's models are middle-aged and wearing, i read, whalebone corsets.

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Grace Robertson, from the series 'Mother's Day Off', 1954

In 1999, Peter Fraser photographed from up-close details of the apparatus used for the study of matter at the Physics and Applied Physics department at the University of Strathclyde, where research was being undertaken into the fundamental nature of matter at a subatomic level.

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Material, Untitled, 2002

There you go! A lovely show, entrance is free.
Island Stories: Fifty Years of Photography in Britain remains open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 19 March 2013.

Related stories: Once upon a time in London, The London Festival of Photography (part 2), Don McCullin, about the London homeless and The Family.

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