In 1858, the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) hosted an exhibition of photographs from its collection in The South Kensington Museum. The Science Museum now makes up part of the original museum and is the site of the current RPS exhibition: Drawn By Light. Over 150 years after the original exhibition, some of the same images are on display alongside more contemporary photographs, and various historical photographic paraphernalia. The study visit was hosted by OCA tutor Wendy McMurdo along with fellow tutor Rob Bloomfield.
One of the first points Wendy made was for us to be aware that the exhibition was a showcase for the RPS and that all exhibits were from their collection - hence we should be aware that although the exhibition was fascinating, there was more to photography than what the RPS had to show. This is of course not to denigrate the exhibition in any way. For me, being relatively new to the history of photography, it was absolutely fascinating to see some of the images which I'd only ever seen in books such as Graham Clarke's 'The Photograph'. This book was part of the reading list for The Art of Photography and was my introduction to its history. A number of the images from the book were on display in the exhibition including William Henry Fox Talbot's The Open Door, Oscar Gustav Rejlander's The Two Ways of Life, Henry Peach Robinson's Fading Away and Peter Henry Emerson's Gathering Water-Lilies.
The exhibition was divided into three rooms - Room 1: Continuity and Change; Room 2: A Period of Optimism and Progress and Room 3: Personal Vision.
In Room 1, photographs from different eras spanning nearly 200 years were displayed alongside each other encouraging us to consider how things have changed, but also how some things have remained the same. One notable pairing for me was Martin Parr's Badminton Horse Trials c.1985 and Horace W Nicholls' A Scene at the Course c. 1914. Although the photographs were taken almost 70 years apart there is the continuity of photographing what I have assumed was a day out for the wealthy, with both events involving horses. The difference in dress code is striking and the sometimes maligned youth of today look far less involved in tobacco and alcohol consumption than their predecessors. Intriguingly, the older monochrome image from around the time of the First World War looks in some ways less dated than Parr's colour image from 1985.
Room 2 included a typical 'salon hang' incorporating 40 densely displayed photographs from several famous photographers from the 19th century. Exhibitions of this type had become a feature from the 1850s onwards and this room was partly used to recreate the style of exhibition display familiar at the time. In this room we paused to discuss movement and how it has been captured (or not captured) by photographers over the years. Amongst the famous images of the capture of movement which we on display were Harold Eugene Egerton's Milk Drop Coronet and the Eadward Muybridge's galloping horses. Most people, I would imagine, would be familiar with these images, or at least have seen them in passing, so it was really interesting to see them displayed here. In the early days of photography it would have been impossible to freeze movement, as exposure times were so long, so most photographs were of landscapes, still-life or portraits of people standing still (usually with some sort of support to restrict movement). As exposure times were reduced and flash light was developed it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
Room 3 aimed to show how individual photographers, both famous and almost unknown, have experimented with different styles or genres of photography, and these 'experiments' are shown here in pairs or groups. There are some intriguing pairs, notably John Hinde's 'Lettuce' alongside 'A Fire Guard', and Paul Strand's The White Fence, Port Kent, New York alongside Blind Woman, New York. This sequence did interest me as I currently have no genre to which I specifically adhere, choosing rather to simply photograph what catches my eye, or what I think may look interesting when photographed. When you hear the name of a certain well known photographer mentioned, you immediately picture a certain type of photograph in your mind's eye, or indeed you picture their most famous image. Established photographers don't tend to venture into uncharted territory; perhaps this is wise. You do see, or rather, hear musicians sometimes try this and it doesn't always work out easy on the ear. Similarly writers are probably recommended to stay within their genre, simply because that is the subject area they understand best. They would still be capable of handling the basics well, as would a musician, or photographer, and it is probably easier to switch from one genre to another, say from lanscape to wildlife, then landscape to portraits. Still, if you're luck enough to have a fan base they might not be too happy! So it is interesting to see these photographers trying a different genre, and it would be an interesting experiment to put into practice, especially if you could do it with the likes of Ansel Adams, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The conclusion, if you like, of the exhibition were the images of Lieutenant Colonel Melvyn O'Gorman. Particularly the autochrome colour image Christina, which is fascinating due to the fact that it looks almost contemporary, even though it was taken in 1913. This image was backlit and displayed quite large. It was also used on the cover of the catalogue and a lot of the promotional material.
For me, I initially saw the exhibition was as more of something of interest rather than something particularly educational, but there were very useful insights given by the tutors and of course, anything like this will educate you if you are prepared to be receptive. I have become a little more familiar with some of the early photographic techniques (although a lot of this is still vague to me) and equipment, as well as some other practitioners from those times.