Beneath the Surface – Embankment Galleries, Somerset House

With an afternoon off, I went to Somerset House to check out some of their exhibitions. Beneath the Surface is presented by the Victoria & Albert Museum, Photo London and Somerset House and includes works from the V&A that are rarely displayed.

Commissioned by Photo London, the exhibition contains a huge breadth of works, ranging from Charles Thurston Thompson’s (1816-68) early photographs of paintings for conservation purposes to Nigel Shafran’s (b. 1964) unusual images taken for the 2012/13 V&A Annual Report. Because of Somerset House’s location by the river, the pictures selected largely focus on the water, too. They have been chosen by the V&A’s Senior Curator of Photographs, Martin Barnes.

Among my favourites were William Strudwick’s (1834-1910) photos from the Old London series, taken in the 1860s: these captured the riverside shortly before the construction of the Embankment, and include scenes of Lambeth, Westminster and nearby areas, as well as several medieval coaching inns shortly before they were demolished to make way for the railways. I also liked Thurston Hopkins’ (1913-2014) scenes of underground London life in the 50s; the street scenes in particular were full of energy.

Some of the pictures were more abstract: John Gay (Hans Göhler (1909-99) took pictures of lots of different manhole covers in the 1960s, revealing a wealth of different patterns. Robert Brownjohn (1925-70) took interesting pictures of street signs at around the same time, while Naoya Hatakeyama’s (b. 1958) image of a darkened sewage tunnel in Japan, from his series “Underground 1999”, is atmospheric and haunting.

Other works were particularly unusual: Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) and George Scamell (active 1900s) photographed Newgate Prison before its demolition in 1900-1902, resulting in some truly eerie images of immense historic significance. As part of the National Photographic Record Association, their job was to record a variety of subjects, many more sinister than those typically captured on film. I really liked Pedro Meyer’s (b. 1935) work, in which he set a digitally-manipulated photograph of himself as a young boy with his father alongside a picture of his adult self with his own son.

The exhibition runs until 24 August and is fascinating viewing for anyone enraptured by old photographs.

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