Review of Beneath the Surface, Somerset House

Review of Beneath the Surface, Somerset House

Beneath the Surface is an exhibition that asks the audience to do just that and look beyond the apparent reality. Held in the house in which the term “photography” was coined all those years ago in 1839, this is a presentation that probes the practice of photography. The show asks the viewer  to truly see what photographers have tried to do with this strange new medium, from the original attempts of the earliest photographers to capture a single moment or scene in perfect clarity, to the ambitions of photographers such as David Kronig whose desire in his collection The Face of the Water (1959-64) was instead to “make still images move”.

What’s most impressive about this collection is the sheer range of work on display; there’s never a dull moment. The subtle theme of water unites the entire exhibit and yet, although it promises an impressive number of prints – over 200 to be precise – the collection still feels somewhat limited. At times the strands that keep the images together appear weak, even unconvincing. Yet for an exhibition that boasts such an impressive array of names and dates it hardly seems important; what is celebrated is not a unified theme but precisely the diversity of the V&A archives. Chosen by Martin Barnes, the V&A’s Senior Curator of Photography, the selection from the archives compromises a range of rarely displayed and unseen images dating back to 1852. Nineteenth century masters sit happily next to contemporary photographers such as Stephen Gill and Naoya Hatakeyma.

Working with the setting is something the curator clearly felt was important, reflecting very deliberately the Embankment Galleries’ riverfront location by looking at images of water and the city that surrounds it. Water after all is one of the most elusive and notoriously tricky mediums to capture in photography, and it’s wonderful to see the changing relationship of artists not only with the camera but with subjects such as this one. In Susan Derges Eden 4 and 5 (1955) – the texture of water alone becomes the main focus on the camera as the ripples and bubbles are closely examined and scrutinised under the lens. German photographer Floris Neusüss instead produces provocative experiments with double exposure to construct eerie creatures of the underground. Rut Blees Luxumerg (whose photography also makes up the main installation in the courtyard of the house) uses the changing perspectives that the medium of water allows, to capture a new angle to the cityscape through a puddle’s reflection. In the words of Derges water becomes “a visual narrative that also operated as a metaphor for wider cycles of life, death and revival”, something that Barnes takes to heart, seeing the watery images as providing “a metaphor for the richness of the V&A’s collection”.

Beneath The Surface is a Photo London commission, until 24 August, Somerset House, Embankment Galleries East, London,.

Thea Hawlin

1. Image courtesy of the V&A.