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Drawn By Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection

5 December 2014 | Jessica Johnston

"Photography is a unique art from - it serves as a tool with which to chronicle history and gives us all an immediate connection with the human experience." Terry O'Neill

In 1839 our view of the world around us changed forever, as the revolutionary art of photography was born. Nineteen years later, in February 1858, the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) held Britain’s very first public exhibition of photography at The South Kensington Museum, which later became the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This month, one hundred and fifty-six years on, the Science Museum’s Media Space gallery will see images by some of photography’s earliest practitioners return to the West London site where they were originally presented, in a new exhibition celebrating the treasures of one of the world’s finest photographic collections.

Spanning the entire history of photography, from its origins to the present day, Drawn By Light invites visitors to immerse themselves in over two hundred key prints from the archives of the Royal Photographic Society. Groundbreaking images by photographic pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton are presented alongside contemporary works belonging to some of modern photography’s most influential figures including Don McCullin, Terry O’Neill and Steve McCurry, in a remarkable display that convincingly illustrates the enduring power, richness and variety of this endlessly fascinating art form.

From exquisite nudes and intimate portraits to serene landscapes and gritty journalism, photography’s incredible versatility is revealed through the wide range of subjects it encompasses. This is shown to great effect throughout the exhibition as photographers from different periods and genres are displayed alongside each other, highlighting both continuity and change in photographic vision over nearly twenty decades. As visitors make their way through the gallery, an extraordinary selection of images are brought into focus, led by Rudolf Koppitz and Edward J. Steichen’s black and white nudes from the 1920’s. Resonating with mystery and sensuality, these striking images are wonderfully juxtaposed with Ed Lacey’s amusing 1974 snapshot of a streaker being escorted off a football pitch in front of a cheering crowd and JamesJarché’s Limbs and Law image from 1924, capturing a policeman chasing after a group of young boys in the buff.

On the adjacent wall, a plethora of famous faces hang side by side: Yousuf Karsh’s iconic 1941 portrait of a stern-faced Winston Churchill is presented next to Angus McBean’s surreal depiction of a youngAudrey Hepburn before she found fame, whilst Frank Sinatra can be seen rehearsing in a series of artfully informal images by Terry O’Neill, taken in 1989. It is however, the haunting eyes and searing beauty of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl that immediately draws the viewers’ gaze. Acquired by the RPS just two weeks prior to the exhibition’s opening, this image is the most recent addition to the collection and undoubtedly a highlight of the show.

Other notable images featured in the exhibition include Don McCullin’s harrowing snapshot of a crying refugee child from East Pakistan, which hangs in stark contrast to his tranquil still life depicting a bird’s nest resting between two carved statues. Madame Yevonde’s vibrant self-portrait and John Hinde’s curious Lettuce bring colour to the walls, whilst Roger Fenton’s sonorous photograph of a deserted valley scattered with cannon balls, evokes the brutality of the Crimean war in 1855. Punctuating these exceptional images, glass vitrines display rare photographic artifacts, from the first wide-angle panoramic camera devised by Thomas Sutton to a collection of experimental cameras used by William Henry Fox Talbot.

Without a doubt, both the diversity and quality of the images on show give this exhibition and indeed the collection as a whole, its distinctive strength. Founded in 1853, the RPS began making acquisitions following Prince Albert’s suggestion that the society collect images to record the rapid technical progress of photography through the ages. Today the society’s collection is one of the most important and comprehensive photographic collections in the world with over 250,000 images, 8,000 items of photographic equipment and 31,000 books, periodicals and documents. Bringing together the work of generations of photographers, all of whom have been seduced by the myriad possibilities of ‘drawing with light’, this exhibition offers visitors a unique glimpse at some of the world’s most important images and the visionaries who created them. As exhibition co-curator Claude W. Sui so aptly describes, “immersing oneself in the depth of this collection is like diving for pearls – it’s an exciting adventure...”.

Drawn by Light is on at the Science Museum’s Media Space gallery from 2nd December – 1st March 2015. Tickets cost £8, available here.

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