The Camera Exposed

When the first museum to collect photographs puts on a temporary photo display, a nostalgia for black and white images and film cameras is all you need to enjoy this step back in time.

Fittingly housed within the famed Victoria and Albert Museum, “The Camera Exposed” is a celebration of presence, permanence and the person behind the viewfinder. Its 30 or so photographs are proof that people used to press a shutter-release button and capture a moment that wasn’t made clear until developed on paper.

Eve Arnold, Self-Portrait in a Distorting Mirror, 1950
Eve Arnold, Self-Portrait in a Distorting Mirror, 1950

Eve Arnold’s Self-portrait in a Distorting Mirror from 1950 is a mesmerizing example of this fading art form. Eve uses her body to steady the camera as she tilts her head down and carefully focuses the shot on the silver lens. Around her, passersby swirl and seem to go up in smoke. The background could almost be made-up, with its dreamlike and haunting figures, but Eve is fixed, forever recording life as she sees it.

There’s not much left to the imagination, however, in Armet Francis’s Self-portrait in Mirror, taken in 1964. A lot more of the frame is brought into focus, including a woman lying on a bed. While hinting at the sometimes voyeuristic nature of photography, Armet makes it harder to look away by giving up his identity as well as his gazing subject’s.

Margaret-Bourke White with her contact, at BR Hauptmann Trial, 1935
Margaret-Bourke White with her contact, at BR Hauptmann Trial, 1935

Perhaps the most honest portraits, though, are the ones you don’t know are being taken. Margaret Bourke-White, the extraordinary photojournalist who was normally documenting industrial life, architecture or war, was captured crouching behind her camera during the Hauptmann Trial in 1935. Her straight back, bent arms and prominent jawline mimic the lines of the tripod, drawing you in right away. The way her eyes concentrate on the hectic scene and her hands meticulously line up the shot, evokes envy—what is warranting her attention? Why has she chosen this point of view? How did the picture turn out?

The entire room gives off this feeling. In the same way that a professional tennis match makes you want to pick up a racket, this photo collection makes you want to reach for a 35mm camera. It just goes to show, images can be even more enchanting when they choose to expose the photographer.

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