About the Known & Strange display

A photograph has the power to transform the familiar into the unfamiliar,  and to make the ordinary extraordinary.  Since its invention, photography has changed the way we see the world by inviting us to interpret reality in our own way.  Its creative capacity to blur fact with fiction is the focus of 'Known and Strange: Photographs from the Collection' .

The display showcases over 50 recent contemporary acquisitions for the V&A's permanent collection, created by internationally well-known names and emerging talents, including Paul Graham, Susan Meiselas, Maurizio Anzeri, Tom Lovelace, Pierre Cordier, Klea McKenna, Donna Ruff and James Welling. These artists have expanded the ever-changing field of photography, both through stylistic experimentation and intellectual inquiry. Individually and collectively, their work represents some of today's most compelling achievements in contemporary photography.

The display highlights the diversity of a medium that, through its malleability, enables many different perspectives to be captured. As viewers, we can challenge everyday assumptions, be reminded of the world's wonders and, perhaps poignantly, become aware that we might not be able to witness everything we want to during our own comparatively fleeting lives. The title Known and Strange, originally a line from the poem 'Postscript' by Seamus Heaney, is borrowed from a series of photographs by Andy Sewell. It captures the sentiment of the full collection of works on display.

Known and Strange Things Pass by Andy Sewell

A man waist deep in the ocean covering his eyes
Known and Strange Things Pass, pigment print, by Andy Sewell, 2020. Purchase funded by Cecil Beaton Fund. © Andy Sewell

The internet, carried by cables along the seabed, and the ocean above them are both vast and unknowably strange. In his series of photographs taken on either side of the Atlantic, Andy Sewell explores an entwining of 'separate' worlds – the immediate and distant, physical and virtual, natural and technological. Sewell describes how "the boundaries we put between things are more permeable than we might like to think. The objects surrounding us, appearing so reliable and mundane, are actually parts of much larger, more complex bodies extended across space and time".

The Unseen by Tereza Zelenková

Three figures sit around a dining table, one stands behind. All have white cloths over their heads hiding their faces.
The Unseen, gelatin silver print, by Tereza Zelenková, 2015. Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group. Museum no. E.218-2018. © Tereza Zelenková

Tereza Zelenková is known for her imaginative explorations of mysticism. She is inspired by literature and philosophy, but also values intuition and coincidence as essential guides in her creative process. Zelenková's work peels back the layers of myth that build up over time. Her photographs demonstrate how she interrogates the past, probing at folklore and overlaying a modern sense of surrealism onto objects that are loaded with history.

Untitled (JE-12121212-2) by Dafna Talmor

Landscape image comprised of layered sections of beach, rocky shore, sea and sky.
Untitled (JE-12121212-2), C-type print from the series Constructed Landscapes, by Dafna Talmor, 2015. Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group. Museum no. E.3506-2018. © Dafna Talmor

Dafna Talmor transforms her own photographs of landscapes by cutting them up and recombining them to create new hybrid compositions. Her work retains ghostly traces of the original locations through multiple negatives shot from different positions and places. She says "the idea that a single image is somehow insufficient is one that is also close to my own heart – particularly when that image fails to capture whatever it was about a site that motivated us to photograph it in the first place".

Bakhambile Skhosana, Natalspruit by Zanele Muholi

Portrait of a woman wearing black-and-white clothing against a black-and-white patterned textile background.
Bakhambile Skhosana, Natalspruit, gelatin silver print from the series Faces and Phases, by Zanele Muholi, 2007 – 10. Museum no. E.429-2011. © Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi's work exposes the persistent violence and discrimination faced by the South African Black LGBTQIA+ community. Describing themself as a visual activist, for this ongoing series Muholi photographed over 300 Black people living in South Africa who identify as lesbian, queer, trans or gender non-conforming, ranging from a soccer player to a dancer, a scholar to an activist. The portraits and their accompanying testimonies celebrate and empower each participant and, in Muholi's words, are "a visual statement and an archive, marking, mapping and preserving an often-invisible community for posterity".

Untitled from the series Illuminance by Rinko Kawauchi

Close-up of spiderwebs and dew on foliage.
Untitled, C-type print from the series Illuminance, by Rinko Kawauchi, 2011. Purchased with the support of Prix Pictet. Museum no. E.3509-2018. © Rinko Kawauchi, courtesy PRISKA PASQUER, Cologne

Rinko Kawauchi focuses on simple moments encountered in everyday life: light caught in a mirror, spiderwebs threaded across garden plants or water splashing into a metal sink. Through the unusual compositional choices and the transformative effects of natural light, the objects take on a new meaning, changed into something poetic. The studies appear intimate and instinctive, capturing Kawauchi's personal observations and encouraging the viewer to find beauty in the ordinary.

American Elm, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn by Mitch Epstein

New York street scene with apartment buildings, cars and a large tree in the foreground.
American Elm, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, gelatin silver print from the series New York Arbor, by Mitch Epstein, 2012. Purchase funded by Mark Storey and Carey Adina Karmel in memory of George Sassower. Museum no. E.620-2019. © Mitch Epstein

In search of trees, Mitch Epstein wandered the streets of New York City. This leaning elm, simultaneously restricted and protected by its concrete support, is a symbol of nature in an otherwise urban landscape. Epstein opens our eyes to the trees rooted in New York and their often-hidden presence in the city. His practice deals with looking and seeing, exploring the way that nature – its adaptability and endurance – can go almost unnoticed in a big city.

Known and Strange: Photographs from the Collection is on display in the V&A Photography Centre, The Sir Elton John and David Furnish Gallery, Room 101, from 6 November 2021 – 6 November 2022.

See more from our Photography Collection.

Header image: Known and Strange Things Pass, photograph, by Andy Sewell, 2020. Purchase funded by Cecil Beaton Fund © Andy Sewell