Drawn by Light @ The Science Museum 6.12.2014

Another photographic exhibition at The Science Museum in Exhibition Road, London. I liked this exhibition very much. On starting my BA course, I read the supplied book “Photography: A concise history” by Ian Jeffrey and this exhibition shows a number of original photographs found in that book as well as other photographs by the photographers mentioned.
“Drawn by Light” is a selection of photographs from the archives of the Royal Photographic Society, the RPS, that apparently span the entire history of photography. According to a review on BBC Radio 4, there are heliotypes on show as well as other objects other than photographs. The history of photography is of interest because it shows so many different photographic genres as well as technical approaches; this exhibition promises to be a live historical account rather than a bookish one.
There is no catalogue for sale on Amazon so perhaps there is not one to accompany the exhibition. The reading list from the college Mentions a book by Tom Hopkinson from 1980 titled Treasures of the Royal Photographic Society which is available for only a few pounds in spite of being a heavy art book; it seems unlikely though that this selection will correspond very much to the one on show today and any critical observations are likely to be dated. The college also mention articles in journals even older books on the collections from the 1930’s and 1940’s as well as a more modern volume by Pam Roberts “Photogenic” (2001) that can be acquired for as little as 1 pence!
The newspapers do not give this exhibition much attention except to laud it for showing such an outstanding collection of images. There is nothing new here to excite the critics!
We are greeted by a tutor outside the museum.
Peach Robinson‘s dying girl is a collage of photographs cleverly printed as one to make a convincing narrative. “Fading Away” is said to be a “photographed from nature” which sounds like a deliberate attempt to cover up the effect it is a montage; photographers have to be more honest these days and can risk loosing their occupations if they are not
Dr Hugh Welch Diamond was a doctor who photographed his mental patients in the name of science; at that time, photography seen as truthful while nowadays it is considered to be rather flimsy as evidence. Diamond was an RPS founder and one of the first to use photography in this way.
I like the way this exhibition is not chronologically arranged. This encourages one to see the photography as possessed of further meaning which it undoubtedly is.
Frederick William Bond was an early kind of nature or at least animal photographer; contents of an Ostrich’s stomach is an interesting documentary photograph.
Roger Fenton “Valley of Death” is hung by a Larry Burrows photo from Vietnam. Staged and not staged. Late photography and action photography. Equipment in early days was not up to capturing action yet Fenton has “doctored” his photograph by inserting canon balls.
Harold Edgerton caught a milk drop splashing. What was once presented as science is now presented as art. Muyerbridge’s photo sequence proved that a horse did gallop with it’s feet off the ground; it is interesting to see an animation of Muyerbridge’s horse photographs but this rather destroys the purpose of this sequence which was to focus on the horse with all it’s legs off the ground.
Samuel Bourne’s “Photographs of Indian Scenery”1867 are seen in a large photobook of the time; this is placed under glass so one sees only a double spread of what must be an interesting series of photographs of the Indian Subcontinent.
A gallery steward asks tutor Rob to tell the group not to photograph and ends up addressing the group herself; someone still does of course and I take it upon myself to suggest otherwise while saying I don’t agree with such policy although it is probably necessary to stop people using flash or otherwise distracting others. A grabshot of a masterpiece is just a grapeshot; the original is a unique object because of the way it has been made as well as it being a part of history.
Daguerreotypes are a one off! Fox-Talbot introduced the negative, endlessly reproducible image. Wendy our tutor suggests mobile phone images are like Daguerrotypes!
There is text by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake whose portrait is featured; it spreads over one wall ‘…photography…is used alike by art and science, by love, business, and justice; is found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic—in the solitude of the Highland cottage, and in the glare of the London gin-palace, in the pocket of the detective, in the cell of the convict, in the folio of the painter and architect, among the papers and patterns of the millowner and manufacturer, and on the cold brave breast on the battle-field.’
Photography driven along by capitalism and consumerism was a part of the Industrial Age points out tutor Robert Bloomfield.
Steiglitz made beautiful and evocative photographs. A Modernist, more documentary and hence urban.
Modernist photographers composed knowing the image would be represented on flat paper. Hence, more emphasis on design within the image. Also presence of technology.
Fenton’s fruit is a still life with a wide variety of tones; remarkable reproduction for it’s time as are most of these images.
RPS no longer so relevant these days. They may have had their day but still going and their archive remains one of the most remarkable.
First photographic book Anne Atkins or Fox-Talbot ?! Subject for debate!
Autochrome, an early process dating from 1907, well documented on the web. Colors somewhat muted yet effective. Good examples from Lt.Col Mervyn O’Gorman. Just before the First World War. Portraits of Christina from 1913.
Mortimer’s Spirit of Storm, 1911. He loved the sea and photography even tying himself to the mast of ships to get his photographs.
 
 
After seeing the exhibition for a good hour, there is chat among students (unfortunately I fall asleep for much of this!!)
Favourite images?
Photography too vast a subject to be contained in any one image.
Don Mac Cullin‘s dark tones
Fred Ritchin has written well on digital imaging manipulation
To develop as a photographer, take risks !!
What about the way the exhibition was displayed
Some of the old photographs look contemporary !!
No new themes anymore!? Artists collecting images of same object – my idea for photos of the Tour d’Eiffel
I wander back in for a second viewing.
 
The Helio-types of Niepce are fascinating to see. Unique and rare examples of the earliest photographs that appear on pewter, made by the action of light with no camera.
Another photographer that captures my eye is Albert Renger-patzsch whose close ups of plants seem to be part of a tradition of nature photography. Interestingly, a photograph of John Blakemore‘s hangs beside these, demonstrating his multi-layered approach to creating subjects that remain abstract.
Chin-San Long has created a photograph called “Majestic Solitude” that has the quality of Classical Chinese landscape art.
This exhibition claims to contain “all the great photographers” but I doubt it is an impartial let alone comprehensive exhibition of photography. Yet it does contain a remarkable amount of images that come from very different times in photography and use a variety of methods from heliotypes to colour negative film.
This is the kind of exhibition one could return to. However, there seems to be a lack of objective criticism about the staging of these 200 photographs that cover the photograph from it’s inception to the begining of the millennia; as the late Alan Sekula made clear in his essay “The Body and the Archive“. There does not seem to be a digital print among them but this is possible.
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