Drawn By Light: Study Visit Review

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

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15 comments for “Drawn By Light: Study Visit Review

  1. 12 December 2014 at 2:39 pm

    My blog about this visit is here … https://wordpress.com/post/28927518/7295

    Thanks to Wendy for doing her homework on this exhibition and to Rob for his informed comments; the after exhibition chat was good too …

    • 15 December 2014 at 11:07 am

      Hi Amano, can’t access your blog post for some reason, can you just check the link?

      • 15 December 2014 at 6:25 pm

        Rob, I appreciated your comments on modernism and wonder if you can give a good reference for modernism and it’s relation to photography !!

    • Wendy McMurdo
      15 December 2014 at 11:30 am

      Glad you enjoyed the visit – an amazing show. Good to get positive feedback and questions on this stimulating study morning from this large group.

      • 16 December 2014 at 10:15 am

        Thanks for link and informative LL post Amano. Photography and modernism….try Chapter 6 in Jeffrey that you mention in your learning log for the fascinating early 20th C. period. For late modernism John Szarkowski was a towering figure, his short book The Photographer’s Eye was published in 1966 and kind of encapsulates the idea, which is incisively even brutally critiqued in The Contest of Meaning (Ed. Richard Bolton) which also happens to contain many of the core texts from Level 2. Happy Christmas reading (-:

        • 16 December 2014 at 11:08 am

          Thanks Rob Shall dig out the relevant volumes … acquired a reprint of 60 fotos by Laholy Nagy which is an interesting read.

  2. 12 December 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I really enjoyed it! It’s only a year or so since I first started to read about Daguerre, Fox-Talbot, Peach Robinson, Fenton and the early pioneers of photography, as well as Steichen, Stieglitz and of course more recent photographers such as Martin Parr and Steve McCurry. It took a while for these names to really mean anything to me, being new to the history of photography. But gradually I have built up a knowledge of the relevance and importance of their work and now to see some of these images on display was like falling in love with a band and then getting to see them play live. Wendy and Rob were very knowledgable and provided very interesting insights into why some of the images were particularly important and it was nice to see their enthusiasm, as this definitely rubbed off on me. My only negative comment was that I felt a little bit rushed, and didn’t feel we had enough time to browse before we sat down for a chat afterwards. We were able to go back into the exhibition afterwards and there was no restriction on our ability to see everything but I think if we’d had a little more time beforehand it might have worked a little better for the discussion. No big deal though. That said, it was a very worthwhile visit; I met a few fellow students and as I said, Wendy and Rob were very knowledgable and approachable. I would definitely recommend the exhibition and would like to applaud the OCA for organising the visit. I’m quite new to photography and I don’t tend to feel comfortable in group events, so for me to say that I enjoyed it is a testament not only to the exhibition itself but also to the tutors and my fellow students.
    Cheers
    Chris

    • 15 December 2014 at 10:02 am

      Really good to get your feedback Chris and I’ll factor your comment about having more time into my next study visit.

      • rubidium86
        18 December 2014 at 8:27 pm

        My pleasure Rob! Thank you very much for your input on the day. I guess being a bit of a photography noob I might have needed more time to absorb what I was seeing than some of the other students. (And I should have done a bit more research beforehand!) 🙂

  3. 13 December 2014 at 10:24 pm

    Have booked to see this next February, really looking forwards to seeing some of these iconic images in person as opposed to in a book or on the web

    • 18 December 2014 at 10:41 am

      Sarah, seeing them for real is what makes this exhibition special even if the selection is not as eclectic as one might be lead to believe!

  4. KIeren
    15 December 2014 at 11:38 am

    The featured image (Paul Martin, 1896, Leicester Square, ) was one of my favourites in the show, small but perfectly stunning. Wendy and Rob did a great job with an informative talk and discussion afterwards. This is definitely a show for anyone interested in looking at ‘real’ photographic processes. Wendy made a great comment about the small glass Daguerrotypes looking similar to pictures we would view on a smart phone.

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