As far as historical survey shows go, the Media Centre’s current exhibition ‘Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection’ contains more than its fair share of iconic images. A copy of Talbot’s 1844 ‘Pencil of Nature? Check. Nicéphore Niépce’s heliographs? Check. Alfred Stieglitz’s 1904 ‘Hand of Man’? Yes, you guessed it – that’s here too. In fact, think of any key image from the early history of photography, and it’s likely that it will be on show here.
The exhibition is made up in its entirety of works donated to the RPS. In its early years, many of these images were produced by the founding members of the society itself. Although not the first to be established in Britain, the RPS quickly became the most influential forum for the discussion and promotion of the medium after its establishment in 1853. The excitement and experimentation of the early years of the medium was palpable in the first gallery especially, which opens with opens with Niépce’s Heliographs, which pre-dated both Daguerre and Talbots experiments by over a decade. Niépce’s small pewter plates contained the ghosts of images produced by covered plates in bitumen and a paper etching and then exposing them to the sun. The resulting image was produced by washing off the hardened coating to leave the residual image – the very first to be ‘drawn by light’.
The first room of the exhibition perhaps most clearly expresses the fervour and excitement that surrounded the medium’s invention. A case of early Daguerreotypes, are shown alongside works by many of the RPS’s most influential founding members, including Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Rejlander and Lewis Carroll. Perhaps most interesting – and moving – is a small grid of RPS founder Dr Hugh Welsh Diamond’s 1852 portraits of his patients from the Surrey County Asylum. This series of images represented one of the very first attempts to use photography to document psychological states and remain as affecting now as they appeared as strange to a Victorian audience.
It is not difficult to understand how extraordinary and uncanny these early photograph looked to an audience not accustomed to photographic reproduction. Both the Daguerreotype and stereoscopic photography produced an eerie lifelike effect that to our eyes looks like a digital rendered 3D image. The OCA students discussed too how the pocket sized and portable Daguerreotype images looks remarkable similar to photographs viewed on our own favourite photographic carrier – the smart phone.
The last set of images on show in this exhibition also look remarkably contemporary despite the fact that they were taken using a colour process patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903. Shot in 1913 Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman’s ‘Christina’ shows a young woman sitting on a beach wrapped in a red cloak. With her relaxed attitude and timeless backdrop, it’s as if her image has been beamed forward to the present. Gorman’s direct images reminds us that many of our themes are not so different from those who first picked up the camera over 150 years ago.
‘Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection’ can be seen at The Media Centre, The Science Museum, London until Sunday March 1st, 2015.
Featured Image: Leicester Square, 1896, Paul Martin, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL