Beneath the Surface is a collaboration between the V&A, Photo London and Somerset House, which promises to delve into the museum’s archives and “reflect the international scope and historical depth of the V&A’s preeminent collection of photographs.”
This, along with the temptation of unseen or rarely-displayed photographs, led me to think this would mostly be a historic look back through early photographic records of London, a sort of trip through the lanes of others’ memories.
And to a degree the exhibition takes the viewer down this route, with a series of very early photographs of London street scenes; urchins waiting to rob passersby, longshoremen, the wharves of the city long since lost beneath the very embankment from which the gallery takes its name.
There are also more recent historical documents, from snaps of sordid Soho in the swinging sixties to a glimpse behind the scenes at the V&A itself.
But then the exhibition shifts focus, to more abstract images taken under flowing water, or using filtered light to germinate grass seeds on photographic paper.
Some of these images are interesting, technically intriguing pieces, but they sit uncomfortably with what had gone before, a funerary fugue cutting to hot jazz with no segue in between, no dissolve.
Some of the images in the final room are, in my opinion, some of the most striking. Images by Brassai and Ruf Luxemburg which typify the beauty that can come from modern urban photography with its deep shadows and brutal lights and loneliness.
But although the many pieces are by turns moving and intriguing, they do not seem to form a coherent whole.
Reviewing the exhibition blurb, it states that the chosen pictures include “images of water, the topography of the city and the people within it,” literally and figuratively beneath the surface. But for a display of around 200 pieces, spread across three relatively small rooms, perhaps this is too much to do.
The exhibition appears chaotic and disordered, unsure of what it is meant to be, and ultimately rudderless. In the end it is so much less than the sum of its individually captivating parts.