Today, the V&A announces The Parasol Foundation Women in Photography project, a major new curatorial programme to support women in photography. The project, funded by Ms. Ruth Monicka Parasol and the Parasol Foundation Trust, encompasses a new curatorial post alongside acquisitions, research, education and public displays, aiming to foreground and sustain women’s practice in contemporary photography. It will also highlight the role women have played throughout the history of the medium.
Despite battling decades of exclusion and structural inequalities, women photographers have played a vital role in the history of the museum. In 1865, the South Kensington Museum (as the V&A was then known) became the first institution to collect – and exhibit – the work of pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Today, it houses the largest Cameron collection in the world, comprising over 900 photographs.
Between 1868 and 1891, the museum employed Isabel Agnes Cowper as official photographer of the building and its collection. The V&A also holds the world’s most extensive collection, over 700 works, of Clementina, Lady Hawarden, another leading figure of 19th-century photography. Other historical highlights include rare works by pioneers Anna Atkins and Mary Dillwyn, as well as outstanding examples of photographic albums assembled and decorated by Victorian women.
The post-World War One period also saw an efflorescence in women’s photography as many acquired skills in Europe’s burgeoning photo studios during the 1920s and 1930s. Women also began to play important roles as documentary photographers, working for magazines like Life and Picture Post. The V&A’s modernist holdings have stunning examples of photography by Florence Henri, Marianne Breslauer, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller and Ilse Bing. At the same time, the British photographer, Yevonde Cumbers, known as Madame Yevonde, pioneered developments in colour photography.
The V&A reorganised its photography holdings in the 1970s with women playing a stronger – if not yet fully equal – role in the collection’s development. The V&A’s fashion collections – traditionally a realm dominated by men photographers – include photographs by Genevieve Naylor, Lillian Bassman, Deborah Turbeville, Corinne Day, Cathleen Naundorf and Nontsikelelo Veleko. In terms of contemporary photography, the museum holds wonderful examples of work by Sally Mann, Susan Meiselas, Simone Nieweg, Ingrid Pollard, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Newsha Tavakolian, Lorna Simpson, Jo Spence, and Maud Sulter to name only a few. Recent acquisitions include major works by Joana Choumali, Tereza Zelenkova, Dafna Talmor, Vera Lutter, Valérie Belin, Rinko Kawauchi, and Poulomi Basu. The art world of photography is now more international than ever before, and the museum acquires a growing body of work from diaspora artists and those working in the Global South.
However, it is clear that despite such riches, we could – and should – be doing more. A glance at collections records makes clear we are far from equal in the representation of women photographers compared to men in the collections, and it is imperative to improve this. The donation from Ms. Ruth Monicka Parasol and the Parasol Foundation Trust will enable this to happen, facilitating regular acquisitions, supporting research, and fuelling dialogue with women practitioners. The recruitment process begins today, and we are hoping that the new Parasol Foundation Curator for Women in Photography will be in post early next year. Watch this space!