The Media Space at London's Science Museum hit the (photography) exhibition circuit at speed when it opened in 2014 with Only in England, featuring work by British great Tony Ray-Jones. Its pace and quality continues to impress with its latest offering: Drawn by Light, an exhibition celebrating some of the treasures from the world's oldest surviving photographic society.
The Royal Photographic Society, founded in 1853, has amassed over a quarter of a million images and 8,000 items of photographic equipment—and it continues to expand. The material of this wide-ranging exhibition is drawn solely from this immense archive, which reaches back to the very beginnings of photography. What makes Drawn by Light so remarkable is how it reveals the lines of continuity between contemporary photography and the earlier practitioners of the art. As this exhibition makes clear, the versatility, imagination and innovation that fuels today's photography have always been impulses shaping the medium's diversity of genres and applications.
Similarly, the thematic concerns—surrounding portraiture, still life, and landscape—are as vital today as they were in the 1850s and individual photographers in the past were just as driven to express personal and public visions of their world. For example, Francis James Mortimer had himself tied to a ship's mast to protect himself and his camera from being swept overboard while photographing a storm ("Spirit of the Storm," 1911). Fred Holland Day ("The Crucifixion: Self Portrait as Jesus Christ," 1898) starved himself for months to look the part before hanging himself from a wooden cross.
These are just two of the photographs in an exhibition that eschews chronology in its presentation, preferring to mix and match different genres, periods and photographers, allowing the viewer to be shocked into recognizing the continuities that span nearly two centuries. Thus, Steve McCurry's iconic "Afghan Girl" (1984) and a color photograph of a young girl on a beach, taken by Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O'Gorman in 1913, are united by their startling use of color. And associations of nineteenth-century photographs with formal poses of overdressed women and hirsute men are swiftly deconstructed by work like Peter Henry Emerson's "Gathering Water-Lilies" (1886) rendering two human figures as other-worldly presences, as still as the water and reeds around them.
There is plenty to see in Drawn By Light and viewers will be stimulated and intrigued by an exhibition that brings together famous, not so famous and unknown photographers, ultimately showing us that what we are drawn to in photography today hasn't changed so much over these many years. And at the same time, what the medium has produced across these many eras continues to draw us in, retaining the same freshness and intrigue it has had from the day it was first invented.
Editor's Note: The exhibition Drawn By Light will be showing at the Media Space at the Science Museum in London until March 1, 2015.
Sean Sheehan is a freelance writer and the author of Jack's World, with photographs by Danny Gralton and Ciaran Watson.