Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Go to Drawn by Light, go! It’s in London’s Science Museum (one of my favourite things in London by far) until 1 March, and then in the National Media Museum in Bradford. I wasn’t sure I would ever attend another exhibition again after Mirrorcity in the Hayward, but this has redeemed them all.

I loved each and every photograph chosen to showcase the Royal Photographic Society’s collection, though they came from every style and period — the curation is outstanding not just for this, but because the way they come together creates something more wonderful than the sum of its parts.

It opened with tasteful nudes of beautiful lines and curves (conversation overheard – ‘What a long back, usually I prefer a shorter back’) facing cheeky boys skipping along in front of a policeman, titled ‘Limbs and the Law’:

‘Limbs and the Law’, 1924, James Jarché, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum / SSPL

Which has led me to discover the National Media Museum’s blog (particularly this one on James Jarché), joy and happy days. Back to the first wall for the lurid color of the 60s in art piece of nudes constructed from sofas and household items and more. The photographs move from haunting to sad to beautiful to clever and arresting. Some are shot in natural light capturing things ‘as they are’. Others are from the studio, others carefully constructed and processed. They have Henry Peach Robinson’s set of prints showing the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a girl dying of TB with her fictitious family around her, a gathering for a policeman’s funeral in Lambeth, some of Phillipe Halsman’s pictures, my favourite being Dali Atomicus:

(How did he do this in 1948? Find out here in this awesome post). There is an early fashion portrait of Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill whose grumpy expression was caused by the photographer removing the cigar from his mouth, a luminous young boy captured on film by a Nazi supporter and firm believer in eugenics. A selection of portraits from an asylum. So much more that is allowed to speak for itself and the uses that photography has been put to. All without flinching.

There are also three heliographs on display — literally drawings by light — the first steps made by Joseph Niépce in the search to invent photography. They are wonderful.

The second section recreates to some extent the feel of a typical Photographic Society exhibition of the 1850s, a wall full of brilliant old photographs of almost everything. You have to crouch down to see some of them, it changes how you see things.

This section is called ‘A period of optimism and progress’. I am myself a little more critical of these times perhaps, but for photographers it was such a time of excitement and invention. My ancestors were busy starving to death in Ireland, but they would have been inventing if they could I am sure. There is a selection here of cameras from the 1800s, bottles of colloidal silver, beautifully crafted wooden cases, early panoramic lenses that are curved. Marvels and wonders.

They have Talbot’s early cameras, they are tiny and took tiny pictures. The description of the medium is salt print.

They have an old picture album, old family portraits. A wonderful photograph of the steps up to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral — one of the most beautiful things I have seen and myself tried to photograph. Frederick Evans spent months, and got it right.

They have wonderful pictures of cities — New York, for instance, by Margaret Bourke-White and her unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty.

They have a picture of the remarkable contents of an Ostrich’s stomach. For that alone you should go.

I might be getting the room order of some of these confused.

They have pictures showing the magic and mystery of Egypt, but also the orientalism, the collecting and commodifying of the exotic. Fred Holland Day who starved himself to model self-portraits as Jesus Christ on the cross (oh the things bored people do). Again there is no flinching, but I don’t know that everyone has the critical view of such pictures that I do, I don’t know how they find them.

They had this amazing piece, photograph and etching by Frank Eugene:

The final section was ‘Personal vision’. Pairs of works by photographers to show breadth or change or style. They are lovely. Expressive of all of the emotions and visions that this medium can call up, evoke. The very different feelings and ideas it can communicate. The sense of place, the sense of soul, the sense of movement.

I am still not sure how they get things just right, but they do. These pictures still sit with me, the ones I have not listed demanding I list them, like the father and son walking in the face of a dust storm. But lists are boring, this exhibition is not.

There is also a competition in which you can submit your own photos inspired by light via social media and win some awesome things. I will be looking at my pictures with a critical eye.

On my way out I realised there was another free exhibit – Make Life Worth Living, a collection of photos by Nick Hedges for housing and homeless charity Shelter between 1968 and 1971. I started to go in but just couldn’t take in more. So I will be back before 1 March to see this.

An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969 Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford
An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969
Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford


2 thoughts on “Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.