A great part of the incomparable appeal of photography must stem from it’s chameleonic nature, that fact that as technologies go it must be one of the most apparently reflective and transparent, ready to shape itself to the needs of whoever picks up the camera. Photography is, as far as a technology can be, all things to all men. The Royal Photographic Society (RPS) was founded in 1853 to promote one element of that diversity, the artistic, and at the suggestion of Prince Albert soon began to collect works by its members. In the century and a half since this has grown into a remarkable collection of prints, books and photographic ephemera, all now held at the National Media Museum in Bradford.
Some of the best of these photographs forms the basis for the current exhibition in the Science Museum’s Media Space gallery. Far from the perhaps rather artless images of science and technology I and others once expected this new gallery to house, the emphasis has so far been on the opposite, on photography as art (from the wonderful Tony Ray Jones show, to the more recent Joan Fontcuberta retrospective). This trend continues in this exhibition, with works by the likes of early pioneers like Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Peach Robinson, and Oscar Rejlander, through to contemporary photographers like Martin Parr and Calum Colvin.
The emphasis though is mostly on the old, and the contemporary part of the RPS collection gets only a relatively cursory examination. To start with there are also some remarkable artefacts from the earliest moments of photography, including a series of heliographs by Nicéphore Niépce and a display of artefacts belongin to Henry Fox Talbot, including an attempt he made at drawing a camera lucida, and some of his early prototype photographic cameras. In respect of these precious artefacts and delicate prints this exhibition is the first obvious demonstration of the great asset that the Media Space is, a grand space designed for the display of works which are extremely sensitive. It has few rivals for this purpose in London, and none on the same scale.
Continuing through the exhibition the art trend continues with early twentieth century pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and some rather more journalistic contributions from the likes of Margaret Bourke-White and Angus McBean. As noted things get a bit thinner towards the latter half of the twentieth century, with relatively few works and fewer ones of note. Aside from the fact it might have thematically clashed with the Media Space’s forthcoming Revelations show on the origins of photography, a tighter focus on the early part of the collection might have made a little more sense.
It’s also undoubtedly true that as much as photography has been a wonderful tool of artistic expression, it has also been a tool of abuse, repression, and marginalisation. This is of course something the RPS isn’t exactly in the business of advertising but I’m glad to say it still sneaks into the show in a few pieces, for example in the form of Hugh Welch Diamond’s 1852 photographs of the inmates of Surrey County Asylum, poignantly sad pictures. The same can be said for Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s beautiful 1938 photograph ‘Head of a Child’ which takes on another meaning, as photographs so often do, when one discovers the photographer was an ardent eugenicist and Nazi party member. These little deviations from the general theme of the show were amongst it’s highlights for me.
There is a loose curatorial rationale running through the exhibition, but in many ways Drawn by Light is an example of an exhibition where an overbearing curatorial structure (of that sort seen in say the Tate’s recent conflict exhibition) really isn’t needed. After years of complaining about flabby curation and ill-fitting underlying concepts I have to say that for once I’m glad there wasn’t more of an attempt made to exert a structure or organisation on the photographs. These images feel too disparate and individually potent to be straitjacketed into themes or categories. My advice is to go without an agenda or a timetable and simply revel in viewing so many important and wonderful early photographs housed in one space.
Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection is at the Science Museum’s Media Space, London from 2 December 2014 – 1 March 2015 and then travels to the National Media Museum, Bradford from 20 March to 21 June 2015