Photographs Described for Blind and Partially Sighted Visitors

The V&A regularly holds talks and study days for visually impaired visitors where they can touch objects from our collections and have objects described in detail. This section of the website looks at four very different historic photographs from the V&A's collection. Each photograph is reproduced in colour and is accompanied by an explanation of the photographic process, the historical context of the image and a vivid description of the photograph to help blind or visually impaired visitors imagine what the image is like.

Also included are comments by Mary Connerlly who came into contact with the photography collection through study days, gallery talks and visits to the Museum. Mary is blind.

Each image can be clicked for a larger version.

Adam Fuss, 'Invocation', 1992, photogram. Museum no. E.693-1993

Adam Fuss, 'Invocation', 1992, photogram. Museum no. E.693-1993

Invocation by Adam Fuss

Adam Fuss was born in London and now lives and works in New York. He was first drawn to photography at school in England, sensing that it might satisfy his passion for science and his growing interest in art. Most of his images, including Invocation, result from experimentation with some of the earliest of all photographic techniques, such as the photogram.

A photogram is a photograph made without a camera by placing objects in direct contact with light-sensitive paper. Upon exposure to light, the paper records the contours of the objects and their textures. Victorian photographers such as W. H. Fox Talbot used this technique to produce delicate impressions of leaves, lace and flowers. These were admired for their detail and clarity.

This image is a photogram of a baby resting in a shallow tray of water. In the split second that the flash was fired, it exposed the photographic paper in the bottom of the tray. This captured the outline of the baby's body and its movements, which are seen as a halo of ripples in the water. The resulting image has a sculptural quality, for it is darkest where the baby was actually touching the paper, allowing very little or no light to reach the paper. For Fuss, light acts as an important metaphor for spiritual growth and understanding. It is something he regards as 'endless, huge and unspecific'.

The dye destruction print, also known as Cibachrome or llfochrome, comprises three layers of emulsion; each sensitised to one of the three primary colours. The technique produces a high gloss surface and a vibrant range of colours which are resistant to fading. Through his use of modern photographic papers and 'live' objects, Fuss has re modelled one of the oldest and simplest photographic techniques to create arresting images which are at once abstract and familiar.

In Fuss's photograph, the baby appears suspended in the centre of a yellow ground. Its head tilts up and its arms are held out, each in a 'V' shape, balancing its body. It is resting with its legs apart and bent at the knee. The baby's reflection in the water creates four broken rings behind and below its right leg, and six broken rings below its right elbow.

'The photograph was described to me very vividly and I could imagine the baby. I looked at a tactile drawing and the baby was in something like a cup. It was explained to me that this was like a baby in the womb and the whole thing came alive to me. It would be impossible for me to access this photograph through touch. If you were to touch a baby in water it would curl up or splash out and change shape completely.'

Mary Connerlly

Gustave Le Gray, 'The Great Wave, Séte', albumen print, 1856. Museum no. BW46415

Gustave Le Gray, 'The Great Wave, Séte', albumen print, 1856. Museum no. BW46415

The Great Wave, Séte by Gustave Le Gray

Like many early photographers, Gustave Le Gray trained as a painter before beginning his experiments in photography in 1848. He is particularly admired for the dramatic photographic seascapes that he produced between 1856 and 1860. These views of sublimely restful ports, or stormy open seas beneath skies of scudding clouds, caused a sensation in both France and Britain. Both the subject matter and medium were groundbreaking.

Using wet collodion negatives, which he printed on albumen coated paper, Le Gray pioneered a process that was still in its infancy. It involved painstaking preparations. The glass plate of the negative had to be hand coated with a thin film of light sensitive chemicals, including a gummy, ether-based liquid known as collodion. The negative was then exposed while still wet and developed immediately. The glass negatives gave finely detailed prints, especially when used in conjunction with albumen coated paper. With an albumen print, the image is suspended above the fibres of the paper within a layer of egg white (or 'albumen') containing light sensitive salts. Unlike previous techniques, the albumen print has a smooth, glossy surface and is easily recognisable for its warm, rich tones and the delicate texture of the paper.

In his desire to capture both the dynamism of the sea and the detail of the sky, Le Gray faced a technical problem. He found that the collodion negatives were too sensitive to the blue parts of the spectrum to record both ground and sky on the same plate. However, he overcame this difficulty by combining in one print two separately exposed negatives, using a longer exposure for the ground than the sky. The use of a paper mask enabled him to print the two areas consecutively on to the same piece of albumenised paper. It is clear that he manipulated many of his seascapes in this way, sometimes even reusing the same clouded sky above a variety of sea views.

Le Gray's photographs influenced both painters and photographers, particularly in the representation of light and movement, but also in the choice of subject matter and viewpoint. A result of careful construction and high aesthetic ideals, The Great Wave is, to this day, a picture of extraordinary power.

Gustave Le Gray has used the light breaking through clouds as the central feature of his photograph. It hits the surface of the sea and turns it silver. The horizon, where sea meets sky, is just over half way up the picture. The harbour wall breaks into the horizon from the left and extends almost half way across the picture. The foreground is dominated by a series of rocks at the water's edge. In between, waves gather and rise up into a wall of water which curls over at the top so that it becomes concave. They finally break into spray on the shore, at the bottom of the picture.

'I saw it as light and dark. When it was described to me I could see what the light and dark meant. I found that I was completely mistaken about how waves come in and break so I had a fascinating conversation with my guide. Next time I hear about waves breaking I will be able to see in my mind's eye exactly what they do.'

Mary Connerlly

Frederick H. Evans, 'Lincoln Cathedral: Stairway in South-West Turret', photogravure, 1895. Museum no. PH.595-1900

Frederick H. Evans, 'Lincoln Cathedral: Stairway in South-West Turret', photogravure, 1895. Museum no. PH.595-1900

Lincoln Cathedral: Stairway in South-West Turret by Frederick H. Evans

Frederick Evans began his career as a bookseller and collector. He turned to photography in the early 1880s and exhibited his first photographs of cathedrals in 1890. Although his repertoire encompassed landscape, architecture, portraiture and photomicrographs (photographs taken through a microscope), he considered 'cathedral picture-making' as 'something beyond mere photography' (quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Frederick H. Evans, New York, 1973).

As this picture shows, Evans frequently framed his photographs with shadowy doorways or clusters of columns which opened out into light, airy spaces. In this photograph of the south-west turret of Lincoln Cathedral, the beam of light cast upon the spiral staircase appears to transform its vaulted ribs into the unfurling branches of a tree. Evans believed that the curve of a spiral represented the supreme order of nature and creation itself. 

Seen as a 'purist' in photography, Evans was meticulous in his methods, claiming never to manipulate his prints. In many cases he employed two techniques, known as platinum printing and photogravure. For a platinum print, paper was impregnated with light-sensitive iron salts, then printed under a negative in daylight. This gave rich, dark tones and silvery highlights. If the development process was carried out under high temperatures, much warmer, sepia tones could be achieved.

Photogravure was first used from 1858 and was available commercially from the 1880s. It enabled a photographic image to be etched on to a copper plate, which was then inked and printed. This had important implications for the circulation of photographic images as it allowed them to be reproduced more readily. It was therefore one of the processes that gradually established photography as the dominant illustrative medium of books, newspapers and magazines, encroaching upon the traditional print media of woodblock engraving and etching.This particular example of photogravure is so fine that it is sometimes mistaken for a platinum print itself.

In this study of perspective, Evans has used the post supporting the spiral staircase and the vaulted ceiling as the central point of his picture. The arches of the roof curve outwards and upwards from the central column, forming a pointed archway on the landing. In the foreground, three steps rise up to join the spiral staircase, while the lines of the wall, on the right, run towards it. On the left, the vertical edge of a wall hides the stairs as they disappear upwards out of sight.

George Hoyningen Huene, 'Lee Miller Wearing Yraide Sailcloth Overalls', 1930, gelatin silver print. Museum no. PH.102-1984

George Hoyningen Huene, 'Lee Miller Wearing Yraide Sailcloth Overalls', 1930, gelatin silver print. Museum no. PH.102-1984

Lee Miller Wearing Yraide Sailcloth Overalls, by George Hoyningen Huene

George Hoyningen Huene was a Russian baron who emigrated to Paris early in the 1920s. He had close family links with the fashion industry and initially worked as a sketch artist in his sister's fashion house. After a period studying Cubist painting and designing background sets for American Vogue, he began to take fashion photographs for the magazine. His early influences led him towards a highly distinctive style characterised by its geometry and tonal contrasts.

Although Hoyningen Huene's photographs appear the epitome of casual elegance, they were carefully composed and showed great sensitivity towards the style and texture of individual garments. He often juxtaposed angular shapes and flowing curves, accentuating them with dramatic lighting. As in this photograph of Lee Miller, simplicity of style is reflected by simplicity of image. While the model's face and upper arm melt seamlessly into the starkly lit backdrop on the left, the profile of her body and loose-fitting trousers form a sharply cut silhouette on the right.

The earliest commercial fashion photographs date from around 1890. However, most women's magazines continued to use traditional fashion drawings as illustrations until the 1930s. Improvements in printing techniques then made it possible to mass produce high quality photographic images. Hoyningen Huene's bold, graphic style helped establish photography as the principal tool for the representation of fashion and style.

Gelatin silver prints, which were widely used from the 1880s, could be printed on a range of paper surfaces, both glossy and matt. Although the developed image was usually black and white, chemical toners were sometimes used to add brownish or bluish hues to the print. The technique was thus highly versatile and continues to be popular among professional and amateur photographers alike.

Lee Miller is standing slightly left of centre, her feet apart and planted firmly on the ground. Her shadow stretches away to her right at an angle of about ten degrees and then climbs a protruding block at the bottom right of the picture. She has her back to us but twists around at the hips so her left shoulder is thrust towards us. Her left arm is folded across her front at a right angle, and her head is turned, looking over her shoulder, so we see her face in profile. As her hair is short and close to her head, the shape of her face shows very clearly.

'I knew a little about Lee Miller. She was a photographer herself. She lived in the 1930s and now would be called a liberated woman. She did her own thing. She was wearing dungarees; I could see the separation of the legs and her arms, as the area was paler. I know that people have heads so I realised that the thing above must be her head but it did not look like a person's head.'

Mary Connerlly

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