Whilst working in London, I took the opportunity to visit the Royal Photographic Society’s “Drawn by Light” exhibition at the Science Museum in Kensington.
The exhibition shows a large selection of photographs from the earliest days of photography right though to the work of current practitioners.
The exhibition itself was held in the media space on the second floor which is a complex of three open rooms. Unfortunately the lighting was quite low which didn’t show some of the images at their best, but I can understand that as some of the prints were the result of ancient processes and likely to fade in strong light.
I was particularly interested in some of the very early photographs and the techniques used. The exhibition included three of Niepce’s original photos which were produced on metal plates using his ‘heliograph’ process. In practice they don’t look like photographs as we understand them, but look more like printing plates. The process made use of a type of bitumen which was hardened by light. The bitumen which had not been hardened was then washed away, and the image remained. It required exposures of eight hours or more, so was only suitable for static subjects. The exhibition also housed photographs created by other early methods such as Daguerreotypes and Fox Talbot’s Callotype process. It’s interesting that these early pioneers did not see themselves as being in competition as one of the exhibits was a Daguerreotype of Fox Talbot himself and I understand that he returned the compliment.
One of the things that struck me in particular was how.many of the older photographs were created imagery, produced from several negatives. A good example is the famous image of the Lady of Shallott by Henry Peach Robinson.
The girl in the boat was actually photographed in the studio, while the background was taken on a rainy day in the Kent countryside. I think this shows how in the early days photography was thought of as a new artistic technique, rather than simply a means of recording reality. This probably has a lot to do with the initial complexity of the medium, with the need to create your own photo sensitive plates as well as chemical processing and printing, all of which took time and effort.
One of the photographs which most fascinates me is Phillipe Halsman’s photograph of Salvador Dali: “Dali Atomicus”.
Taken in 1948, it shows Dali and his easel floating off the floor, whilst cats and a stream of water fly across in front of him. I assume that it was taken with assistants on either side throwing the water and animals whilst Dali himself jumped up as the shot was taken. It would have been very interesting to see exactly how it was done. As a photograph it is certainly successful in recreating the surrealism of Dali’s paintings.
A much newer photograph which was created artistically is “Turkish Bath” by Calum Colvin.
Although simply a photograph of a bedroom, it is enhanced by the painting of the subject to create a cartoon of two people in the bed. The fact that the painting covers other objects in the room, such as the hot water bottle on the bed, makes it two images in one, one of the bedroom itself and the other of the cartoon, without being exclusively either. This is Calum Colvin’s particular artistic style. He paints images in places which can only be seen properly from the point of view of the camera.
I like the use of lighting in this shot. As well as the main lighting on the bed, the table lamp pointing at the wall and the hanging lamp both contribute.
Coming to more conventional photography we have the famous picture of an Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry.
I can personally remember this being on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. The photograph was taken the previous year at a refugee camp in Pakistan where the girl and her family were fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Newman 2002) The most obvious thing about this photograph is her eyes. They show her fear and really do penetrate the viewer.
The other photograph which surprised me was the one used on the poster for the exhibition. It looks like a contemporary photo, but in fact it is one of a series taken in 1913.
“Christina” taken by Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman, is a lovely example of an autochrome, one of the earliest means of taking a colour photograph. An amazing photograph for one taken over 100 years ago.
Cathy Newman. 2002. A Life Revealed. National Geographic.
(not attributed) 2014. Drawn by Light. Royal Photographic Society.
Henry Peach Robinson The Lady of Shallott © National Media Museum, Bradford
Phillipe Halsman Dali Atomicus © National Media Museum, Bradford
Calum Colvin Turkish Bath © Calum Colvin
Steve McCurry Afghan Girl © Steve McCurry
Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman Christina © Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman