Drawn By Light – my review of the exhibition

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection
at the London Science Musuem 3 June 2014

There’s so much volume tucked away in the 160ish year old archives of the Royal Photographic Society that trying to curate an exhibition would be a daunting task for anyone. While the collected plates and prints are all interesting for their own reasons, the presented collection as a whole feels a bit flat and forced. Overall the exhibition felt disjointed and self-absorbed. I liked looking at the old photographs but I was frustrated by the poor signage and lack of context provided to me. After dropping eight quid on a ticket, I expected more than what I’d get out of an hour of surfing wikipedia and google images.

Starting at one end of a hall and moving through three rooms, the presented works represent the earlier days of photography, with only a very small number of prints dated after the first world war. However, they are not organized chronologically nor are they organized by technology. Instead, some obtuse theme was chosen for each room – and the works were arranged therein. These themes did not carry over into the accompanying book, which is a tragic oversight as this means the book is not a supplement but instead a poor record of the exhibit. I do recall the final room featured paired examples from photographers at different points in their careers to show how their vision and/or technology changed over time. Even in this room, it was not clear to me why certain photographers were chosen, nor was it made clear how the common influences of their eras were affecting them individually.

This lack of background and context is the fundamental problem with the exhibit. I had expected an exhibit at the Science Center to include more information about the technology – instead each photograph was dutifully labled with the process used – eg “dageurrotype” or “bromide print” – but at no point were any of these processes explained. The book does go into them somewhat (brief descriptions in the glossary) but I feel a very valuable opportunity to work with the Science Musuem’s mission was lost here.

To a certain degree, and definitely during the first couple of decades of the RPS, the people important to photography and the people important to RPS were one and the same. The photos chosen for the exhibit lean towards portraits and photographs-of-record of these upper-middle class blokes (and a few ladies), but I don’t think enough attention was paid to their work and why their work was considered important.

Ultimately, this feels like a collection of photographs more important to the RPS than to contemporary photographers, and the exhibition does little to engage people with photography’s technological and aesthetic evolutions. This exhibit would have been more appropriate at the RPS headquarters than in a public science musuem. Nearly all of the people looking at these photographs have cameras with them 24/7, but absolutely no effort was made to engage the public’s experience of photography with the RPS’s history of photography.