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Book Review : Drawn by Light ( Science Museum )


To accompany  the new Drawn by Light exhibition at the Science Museum, the museum has produced a Drawn by Light Exhibition Catalogue book  which features many of the highlights of the exhibition.

In collaboration with the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim, Germany, and with the support of The Royal Photographic Society, the Science Museum has made a selection of key treasures from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection’s extraordinary collection of over 250,000 images, 8,000 items of photographic equipment and 31,000 books, periodicals and documents.

The exhibition brings together the selected  200 highlights from the collection of the world’s oldest surviving photographic society and features  some of the greatest names in photography, past and present.

Gathering Water-Lilies, 1886, Peter Henry Emerson © National Media Museum, Bradford SSPL

Gathering Water-Lilies, 1886, Peter Henry Emerson © National Media Museum, Bradford SSPL

The history of  The Royal Photographic Society is intrinsically tied to the development of photography itself.  Although  William Henry Fox Talbot  declined the presidency of the new society, there were a number of other photograph pioneers who did get involved, most notably Roger Fenton. Starting with printing a journal and holding exhibitions, the society began to promote photography to its many new participants and the wider public. Royal patronage from Queen Victoria and  Prince Albert added to the prestige of the society as the media began to develop  through the late 19th century. However the lack of suitable permanent headquarters and the failure to include all aspects of the media did mean that progress for the society in the 20th century was ad hoc and sporadic.

The steady growth of the society’s collection often led to problems of finding suitable spaces for exhibitions. The second section of the book illustrates the relationship between The Royal Photographic Society and the Science Museum  is a long and productive one. In 1858, the first exhibition  of photographs to be held in any British museum was held at the South Kensington Museum. Eventually the South Kensington Museum split into the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum.  In the 20th century especially the Society and the Science Museum collaborated on a number of exhibitions.

In the third section of the book consideration is given to the development of photography and how ‘the magic of a moment in time’ has became the outstanding pictorial medium of the last 175 years. Over that time  The Royal Photographic Society  collection has become a treasure trove of camera technology, photographic processes and examples of the many applications of photography. This diversity illustrates how what was seen as nothing more than a mechanical reproductive process has developed into an independent art form.

The rest of the book is taken up with plates that show this process in action, from its earliest photographs there have been photographers who have used the media for creative purposes.

Once processes and equipment became more widely available, the many different movements within the media began to take shape, early pioneer Roger Fenton was considered the first war photographer with his photographs of the Crimean War.  Linnaus Tripe began to experiment with architecture and light and Oscar Gustav Rejlander began to experiment with photomontage.

The Two Ways of Life, 1857, Oscar Rejlander © National Media Museum SSPL

The Two Ways of Life, 1857, Oscar Rejlander © National Media Museum SSPL

As in the exhibition, the book often shows photographs from different time periods about the same subject matter. Therefore we have an a study of architecture and light  by Linnaus Tripe from 1858 contrasted with a similar subject taken in New York by Paul Strand in 1916. Steve McCurry’s famous photograph Afghan Girl is contrasted with Walter Bird’s Eastern Madonna, whilst Roger Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death and Larry Burrows Operation Prairie show images of war taken over a century apart.

Afghan Girl, Pakistan, 1984 © Steve McCurry

Afghan Girl, Pakistan, 1984 © Steve McCurry

Photographer’s creativity in the medium is illustrated by Leon Demarchy’s impressionist photogaphs, Rudolf Koppitz’s stunning Bewegungsstudie, Philippe Halsman’s surreal picture of Salvador Dali, Angus McBean’s unusual portrait of Audrey Hepburn and Ansel Adams striking Aspen.

Bewengungsstudie, 1926, Rudolf Koppitz © National Media Museum, Bradford SSPL

Bewengungsstudie, 1926, Rudolf Koppitz © National Media Museum, Bradford SSPL

Undoubtedly the ‘poster girl’ of the book and the exhibition is the extraordinary series of photographs of a young woman named Christina in 1913 by Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’ Gorman. The photographs were taken in 1913 yet seem  so contemporary they would not be out-of-place in a modern fashion magazine.

The exhibition and the book charts the development of photography from its origins to the present day, they both illustrate that at different stages of the media’s development it has produced remarkable photographers and iconic photographs. The Royal Photographic Society Collection is rightly considered one of the world’s greatest photography collections and rarely do the public have a chance to view many of their most treasured photographs at one time.

This interesting and lavishly illustrated book is a wonderful introduction to the collection and is invaluable to those interested in the development of a medium that has become such an important part of everyday life that it’s origins are often overlooked.

 Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like more information or buy a copy of the book, visit the Science Museum website here

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