The V&A’s Marta Weiss on curating Light from the Middle East: New Photography
The V&A’s Curator of Photographs (pictured below) talks about how the museum acquires new photography and shares advice for would-be curators…
Marta Weiss, Curator of Photographs at the V&A
What was your starting point for curating Light from the Middle East?
Light from the Middle East came as a result of a joint initiative between the V&A and the British Museum. In 2009 we were given a grant from the Art Fund to form a joint collection of contemporary Middle Eastern photography. It was an unusual way to put together an exhibition because I was starting with a pool of work – normally you do it the other way round.
After spending time with the works we had collected and thinking about various ways I could create a narrative with them, I came up with the structure for the exhibition. Once I’d done that, I identified where the gaps were and went back to the Art Fund to ask for a little bit more money so we were able to make some final acquisitions that would round out the exhibition.
How do you acquire new photographs for the V&A’s collection? Do you have any advice for emerging photographers about getting on your radar?
We have a vast and international collection – we were the first museum in the world to start collecting photographs – and we have over half a million photographs. The V&A as a whole has a remit to support the creative industries so we collect the work of emerging artists alongside much more established photographers.
We attend portfolio reviews at festivals and have a broad photography network so sometimes things happen through word of mouth. Given the workload of curators it’s hard to keep up with everything that gets sent to us. We do try to look at people’s work but, to be honest, it’s rare that we acquire new work by people approaching us cold.
What criteria do you look at when deciding whether to acquire a particular photograph?
I’m always thinking about what’s already there, both in photography and in the V&A’s broader collection. I’m asking, “Will this fill a gap in our collection?” and, “Will it complement what we already have?” In terms of the work we acquired for this joint project, we were interested in works that addressed the medium of photography in a particularly creative or innovative way. The British Museum is a museum of history and mankind and they’re very much interested in the content of the pictures, so they had different collecting priorities. So the works in the exhibition that are more experimental in technique tend to be the ones that belong to the V&A.
How did you get into curating photography?
I studied history of modern and contemporary art as an undergraduate and did a PhD in the history of photography. I knew when I went to do the PhD that it was towards a career in museums rather than an academic career, because I enjoy working with objects and love conveying a message or an argument through the works themselves rather than through writing about them.
The V&A has invested a lot recently in its photography collection, as has the Tate – do you think this trend is set to continue?
The last few years have been a great time for photography in London, with so many museums committing themselves to it so vocally. At the V&A it’s nothing new but I certainly hope it’s not going anywhere. It’s also an interesting moment in terms of digital and analogue. Digital has been around for long enough that people are now interested in analogue media that they worry could become obsolete, so there are exciting things happening.
Have you got any advice for young photographers or collectives thinking of putting on their own show?
As an art historian and a curator my approach always starts with the object. You have a theme, an argument or story as well but when it comes to selecting the works and thinking about their arrangement you have to spend time with the photographs themselves – and photographs aren’t just images, they’re objects; you have to engage with their physical qualities.