Drawn by light – Study Visit

by Suzy Walker-Toye

Christina

It’s taken me a while to write up my visit at the end of last year to the Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the Science Museum. The visit was hosted by two OCA tutors, Rob Bloomfield and Wendy McMurdo. Wendy’s excellent review is written up here. I was very impressed that she had previewed the exhibition and really done her homework so she could show us around the exhibition and talk a little about selected pieces which was very interesting and added a lot to the visit. On other study visits I’ve been on its often the first time the tutors have seen the work so there is an obvious element of them winging it (which is also fine because you get their unfiltered responses).

drawn by light exhibition media space

I don’t have a great deal to add that that review really, apart from my own impression of how contemporary some of the images seemed to be. Especially the images of Christina, above, by Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman. This was part of a set of images which were amazingly from 1913. It looks like she’s wearing a red hoodie! In fact I was surprised at how early the colour photographic processes had crept in. I was always under the impression it was much much later. I enjoyed seeing the range of classic images all together in one collection (although a few more sitting down places from which to enjoy the images would have been nice, its a largish sized exhibition across several rooms but in my pregnant state I found it quite tiring to do all at once including the tutor talks). This trailer from the science museum shows some more of the pictures that were on display (no photos inside the exhibition so I didn’t make as many notes on my phone as usual).

I love this quote from the timeout review I read because it sort of sums up the exhibition for me.

Got to love a pun in the name of a serious exhibition. ‘Drawn by Light’ could refer to the pull of the nascent technology of photography in the early nineteenth century, which drew scientists, artists and wealthy dilettantes, mothlike, to this incredible new way of recording the world on light-sensitive plates. But it also reflects the ‘artistic’ tack of a lot of early photography. This was drawing with light: a noble creative calling, whereby the treasures of the earth and the human soul might be delineated, analysed, catalogued. A path to enlightenment, if you will.

I enjoyed the 1850’s Salon style layout of one of the walls of images too, it gave the modern audience an appreciation of how these images may have been viewed when first exhibited.

DrawnByLight wall of images

In the little exhibition booklet it explains that they used images from the V&A (such as the one below) depicting an Exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society 1858 to recreate this typical Salon curation. Its amazing to think of all that great work stuffed into such a small space.

1858_photography_exhibition

After an hour or so around the exhibition we all convened for a chat over coffee, unfortunately there was much of it I couldn’t hear because the group was very large and I was somewhat on the edge. I think there was mention of the many gaps in topics of the images, since the RPS are “quite conservative” about what topics constitute art (which was quite cheeky I thought coming from the OCA tutors considering that even today academia frowns upon certain genres (namely wildlife photography which I find can be just as artistic as landscape or anything else, just go see the WPOTY exhibition if you need convincing of that).

The one image that really stuck with me was this one of London in the twenties: The Heart of Empire, c.1923, Alfred George Buckham.

The Heart of Empire, c.1923, Alfred George Buckham

It has so many elements that make me love it. The light. The subject (I’m a proud Londoner so any lovely London views, especially around the thames hold a special place in my heart). The point of view, even today aerial views are not as common and mundane as many other view points for photographs so in those days – to take this photo – wow! The plane as the focal point and the shafts of light and the Thames leading the eye through the photo. Its amazing. The reproduction here looks a little newspaper-clippingish but its well worth going to see in person.

With the exception of that one image (and some of the colour ones), overall I think I agree with other OCA student, Sarah-Jane, that I was glad to see it but I wasn’t as excited as I should have been about this exhibition. A lot of these images were amazing for their time-period, and certainly very interesting as an academic collection of historical images however, as a modern audience, people have seen hundreds of images of a similar nature (sure, its good to see where we came from) but I think I prefer seeing the contemporary shows of where photography is now. The modern exhibitions seem to have a trend of showing images super blown up. Does it make me shallow that it’s more impressive? Perhaps. Maybe its just that I’m tired of seeing millions of tiny photos of mediocre things (on a computer screen, mobile phone, or in fact printed as these are) I want to see something that wows me in some new way, something I can get excited about. I’d still recommend going to see it though, its on at the science museum media space until 1st March 2015 (so you don’t have long).

Here are some more reviews not linked to already above
Design week
The Guardian
The Telegraph
BBC Radio 4

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