The Science Museum’s Media Space, a gallery dedicated to the collections of one of its sister museums, the National Media Museum in Bradford, opened only last year. But with its latest exhibition, the Media Space shows that it is already prepared to be hugely ambitious in its vision and in its scope. Putting on a show spanning the entire history of photography, as captured, collected and documented by the oldest photographic society in the world – The Royal Photographic Society – is no mean feat.
Let us be clear, Drawn by Light very much feels like a photography exhibition, much like you would see in a photography gallery, and not like a museum gallery all about the history of photography. This space is, after all, a piece of the National Media Museum transported to London, rather than a piece of the Science Museum. Aside from one or two cameras from the nineteenth century, and a couple of early examples of photographic publications in cabinets, the story of photography is illustrated by photographs alone, mostly hung on the plain white walls.
But when choosing which pictures to include in an exhibition showcasing a 158-year archive, featuring the work of thousands of photographers, where do you even begin? How do you categorise them? And what story do you try to tell? Inevitably, there will be many visitors who may be aggrieved that their favourite photographer is not included. And some may argue that putting the images in a more linear, chronological order might have told a simpler story that was easier to follow. For instance, the section devoted to the formation and the early years of the RPS (originally just the ‘Photographic Society’) is not at the beginning of the exhibition, but in the middle.
Personally I feel that the deliberate effort to not be chronological serves the exhibition very well. Images captured more than a century ago are displayed alongside those only decades old, sepia alongside colour, and celebrities alongside unknown subjects. The result is a refreshing look at what the art of photography is all about. From the moment Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (born 1765) started experimenting with light-sensitive chemicals in his laboratories (three of his ‘Heliographs’, literally ‘sun drawings’, from the 1820s are on display), photography has had a dramatic effect on the way human beings have viewed the world. Different styles of photography have become fashionable during particular periods of history, and technology has continually reshaped the relationship between a photographer, a camera and their subject. But throughout, photography has been about artistic expression and experimentation. Given how significant the twenty-first century has so far been to the history of photography, and how the power of photography has found its way into the pocket of almost every last man, woman and child on the planet in just a few short years, I would have liked to have seen some kind of a nod to the age of digital, the mobile phone, and the ‘selfie’. After all, this latest age of photography has, I would argue, turned our view of the world on its head in almost a profound a manner as when photography was first invented.
I’ve always been fascinated by early photography, mainly because it gives a viewer the opportunity to gaze into the eyes of someone who lived a very long time ago, in such a way as to almost bring the person back to life. And so I was delighted to see so many photographs from the nineteenth century in the exhibition. Along with some examples of what everybody first thinks of when you say “nineteenth-century photography” – stuffy, formal portraits of women with bonnets and men with incredible sideburns – there are also some fabulously surreal and other-worldly images. They illustrate how even at this incredibly early stage there were some incredibly inventive and imaginative photographers clicking away. Indeed, many of these photographers were founding members of the RPS. Roger Fenton, widely regarded as the history’s first ever war photographer, was the society’s first secretary, while William Henry Fox Talbot – the inventor of the calotype process – was offered the presidency of the RPS (though he ended up turning it down). There was even a Photographic Society club, formed ‘to promote union and friendly feeling amongst the members of the PS’. The photograph of the club on a day out at Hampton Court is a delight (one man is so completely relaxed he has even taken off his top-hat). For me, the most educational part of the exhibition was discovering just how richly varied nineteenth-century photography was. Far from being just a means of recording people or events, with its potential as an art form only truly realised in the twentieth century (which was, for the most part, my previously held view), photography was groundbreaking, experimental and even controversial from just about the very beginning.
Like any new art form, photography pushed the boundaries not just of what was thought possible, but of what was considered acceptable and appropriate. The poignant Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson shows a young woman, laying in bed very close to death, while her distraught father gazes out of the window, his back to the room, and her mother and sister try to comfort her. It is an incredibly sombre, quite unsettling picture by any standard, and outraged many in Victorian society, but did count Prince Albert – who purchased a print of it – among its admirers. Even today, it does seem a very strange image to want to own. I wonder if Albert, or anyone else for that matter, decided to hang it on the wall.
The exhibition even goes as far as recreating a typical nineteenth-century photographic exhibition. One wall is jam-packed full of photographs, all different shapes, sizes, and subject matter, and all squeezed tightly together (I am glad exhibitions don’t tend to be put together like this these days). There is then a large touchscreen where visitors can select a particular image, learn more about the photographer who created it, the technical aspects of how they did so, and zoom and pan around the image at leisure to really dive deep into it. I found this part of the show really enjoyable. There is a wealth of fascinating detail in an image like Roger Fenton’s British army camp in Crimea, with its sea of white tents and soldiers strolling around, that allows you to examine it almost endlessly. For me at least, that is what photography is all about. The little details, the unexpected subjects that impose themselves on an image without prior permission, and the things you only notice after a second or third look. The man in the top hat in the foreground of the landscape shot of Richmond castle: who is he? Where is he going? Does he know the photographer, or did he just happen to be standing there?
On show are some beautiful examples of the very earliest experiments in colour photography. There is an incredibly small three-colour carbon print from Otto Pfenninger from 1906, featuring children and their mother paddling on a beach. It may be tiny but it is still rich in detail, the vivid colour making it look as though it were taken yesterday. Mervyn O’Gorman’s pictures of his daughter Christina are also taken on a beach, on a family holiday in Dorset, and one of the shots is reproduced in poster size in the exhibition. The red of Christina’s hood and the blonde of her hair burst out of the picture and yet, incredibly, it is over a century old.
The camera, the old adage goes, never lies, but photographs frequently do. For a photograph is not always quite what it seems. There are many examples in the exhibition of images that have been created by combining two or more different photographs. Sometimes this may be done to create a downright surreal image such as the one of Audrey Hepburn apparently buried in sand, created by Angus McBean in 1950 and used in a face cream advertisement. At other times, the combining of different images serves to make a relatively realistic scene look more striking or visually impressive than a single photograph could ever achieve. Nicholas Murray’s iconic World War Two image Soldiers in the Sky shows a woman (photographed in a studio) looking out into the distance as a fleet of fighter planes (photographed separately) sail over her head. While in other instances, blending different photographs together can be done in such a way as to make the image seem completely real, and thus completely deceive the viewer. Francis James Mortimer’s The Gate of Goodbye, showing departing soldiers saying goodbye to their loved ones at Waterloo station, may be depicting what was a daily scene by 1917, but this famous image is in fact a composite of more than twenty separate negatives.
Yousuf Karsh may not be a household name in the history of photography, but his portrait of Winston Churchill is perhaps the most iconic of all of the great statesman. The young Canadian photographer had only a few minutes with the British Prime Minister, on a hectic day of engagements during a state visit to Canada in 1941. He asked Churchill if he would refrain from smoking during the shoot, which Churchill rudely refused to do. Karsh decided to snatch the cigar from his mouth, and then photograph Churchill as he glared angrily down the camera lens at him.
With her piercing green eyes, photographic portraits simply don’t get more arresting or more striking than Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl, photographed in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984 and featured on National Geographic magazine’s most famous cover. While McCurry’s picture evokes the bleakness and tragedy of war, Dr Hugh Welch Diamond’s photographs of mentally ill inmates of the Surrey County Asylum from 1852 are similarly haunting. The facial expressions of the people vary from childish smiles to daydreaming stares, but you can sense real pain and suffering in the eyes of each of them.
The curators appear to have struck the perfect balance between photographs that are incredibly well-known (Churchill, Afghan girl, etc.) and those that are incredibly obscure. At times we jump from colour to black and white, from formal to surreal, from portrait to landscape. There is something rather fun, almost playful about seeing photographs of all different styles and different eras jumbled up together in this way. It serves as a way of reminding us how, even as photography has diversified – and democratised – hugely, all these images involve something of the same process. A photographer, a subject, and a moment in time, immortalised forever.
Drawn by Light runs at the Media Space on the second floor of London’s Science Museum until 1 March 2015, with tickets costing £8.