Review of Drawn by Light, Media Space, The Science Museum, London

In 1853 The Photographic Society of London was founded “to promote the art and science of photography” and converted into The Royal Photography Society in 1894. Today the Society has more than 11,000 members ranging from world famous documentary, portrait, landscape and fine art photographers to amateurs and students, and it is the UK’s largest photography organisation. Drawn By Light at the Science Museum’s Media Centre, showcases the extraordinary breadth of the Society’s collections, both historical and contemporary.

The unique nature of the Society’s remit, that it places equal emphasis on the art and science of photography and its technological innovation, has combined with the wide-ranging interests of its members and their generosity in donating works, to create one of the most eclectic and important photographic collections in the world. The extensive collection is held at the National Media Museum, Bradford as part of the National Photography Collection and exhibitions such as Drawn By Light offer a minute but direct insight into this astonishing collection.

Curated by the National Media Museum’s Colin Harding, Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology, Claude W Sui and Stephanie Herrmann, the exhibition is loosely thematically based but interestingly varied in mixing photographers from all areas of the medium’s history in a hotchpotch of mutual inspirations and unique innovations. The extensive nature of the collection could pose a challenge to make an exhibition of such varied influences but in fact, this variety in itself becomes the theme and primary unifier.

Although the exhibition is not chronological, the first room does contain two of the earliest known uses of photographic processes, lit from behind providing an intimate glance into another world. These images aside however, what is most fascinating is the timelessness of many of the works. While photography can seem a technology that easily dates, pieces like Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman’s early colour photography vehemently refute this rule. There are just three photographs from O’Gorman’s project photographing a local teenager on a lonely Dorset beach in 1913 but they are inspiring in their modernity. Wearing an ageless red hooded coat, craning her neck to bask in the weak English sunlight Portrait of Christina (1913) is a study of innocence, hope and sensuality. Created at a time when colour photography was almost unheard of, it is a wonder that O’Gorman’s work is not better known today, although he was hugely influential at the time.

In its quiet contemplation and vivid colouration, Portrait of Christina echoes a modern-day photograph that has become known the world over. Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl is a testament to photography’s ability to speak across language and culture barriers and capture hearts across the world. Staring intensely at the photographer, her vivid green eyes searing into the lens and her tattered cloak echoing Christina’s, the portrait tells the human story of Afghanistan’s ongoing political turmoil.

There are artistic stories too, both in the macro development of artistic movements and forms and in each photographers’ personal journey. From Angus McBean’s Surrealist advertising image of Audrey Hepburn rising from a desert of classical ruins (1950) to the geometric modernism of Paul Strand’s Photograph – New York (1916), this infant medium engages with the formation of 20th century artistic ideals as much as any painting or sculpture. In fact, in its engagement with architecture the photography creates some of the most striking works on show, pieces such as Noel Griggs’ Chimney (1934), which marvels at the new age as many would marvel at photography itself, while works such as Sepervivum Percarneum (1922) by Albert Renger-Patzsch return to the artist’s eternal contemplation of nature. Meanwhile the personal journeys of photographers are shown in Personal Vision, where early and late works are juxtaposed to show a striking consistency in some, and an almost schizophrenic thirst for the new in others.

With background films into the growth of the Royal Society, artefacts from bygone processes and equipment, and a sample Salon-style hanging of a typical 1850 exhibition, Drawn By Light offers an intriguing insight into an exceptional collection. Here’s hoping for many more opportunities to see more of the Society’s remarkable range.

Drawn By Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection, until 1 March, Media Space, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD

Ruby Beesley

1. New Orleans Street Singers, 1971, Tony Ray-Jones, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL.