The Royal Photographic Society Collection
Media Space, Science Museum, London: Until 1 March 2015
National Media Museum, Bradford, UK: 20th March- 21 June 2015
Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, Germany: 2017
Photography is quite, literally, a miracle. In this technological age we forget how much, forget what the world was like before we could capture the fleeting, the momentary and lock it with one single click of the shutter into eternal aspic. Before the photograph memories were just that. Memories. To look at old photographs is to have a direct worm hole into the past. They are not the same as paintings. There, in front of us, is often the actual living plant, view or person as they were, maybe, 150 years ago. That is the way the light fell on a particular day, those are the actual clouds or dirt under the fingernails. It is not so much an interpretation but a preservation. Even a re-incarnation, and it often seems magical.
Founded in 1853, the Royal Photographic Society began making acquisitions following Prince Albert's suggestion that the society should collect photographs to record the rapid technical progress in photography. Royal approval soon followed. The 1850s were a moment of unprecedented optimism in Britain as we stood on the edge of a new, modern industrial world. There was a belief in the unlimited possibilities of science and technology, symbolised by a new young Queen on the throne. The RPS was modelled on the Victorian ideal of the learned Society. These existed all around the country to discuss literature, philosophy and the natural sciences and bring about self-improvement. The aim was to promote both the art and the science of photography. Today this unique collection contains over 250,000 photographs and is one of the most important in the world. Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection is the first co-curating enterprise between The Royal Photographic Society, the Science Museum and the National Media museum and the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen. The title provides a delightful pun - for, of course, photography is pure light. The exhibition not only reflects the development of camera technology but the psychological, philosophical and aesthetic trends of particular eras and includes works not only by the greats such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Strand and Don McCullin but also by many less known photographers.
But from the very first things were not always quite what they seem. Many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged. After arriving by horse-drawn carriage in the much shelled valley approaching Sebastopol, where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place, Roger Fenton organised a little additional scattering of cannonballs on the road for dramatic effect. Equally Henry Peach Robinson's 1858, Fading Away, and his 1842 Wounded soldier have the air of being staged. This intervention can also be witnessed in the 1917 First World War scene of railway goodbyes by Francis James Mortimer, which is in fact a collage or Fred Holland Day's depiction of himself as the crucified Christ. (A theme, incidentally, returned to some years ago in the mock crucifixion of the late performance artist, Sebastian Horsley). While Frances Frith's self-portrait, in supposedly Turkish costume, underwrites Edward Said's take on orientalisation of the exotification of the East by western artists. For Firth never actually visited Turkey. But there are other historic images, such as the Count of Montizón's 1852 giant hippo reclining by its pool in the zoological gardens, or The Onion Field taken in Mersea Island Essex in 1890 that do take us directly into the past.
There are curiosities, too, such as Muybridge's 1887 Daisy trotting saddled that went some way in revealing the true nature of a horse's movement and the bizarre 1927 Content of an Ostrich's Stomach by Frederick William Bond that includes a couple of handkerchiefs – one embroidered, one plain - various, coins, bits of rope and metal nails.
Many of the early photographs veer between the desire to set up mise-en-scenes and creative narrative tableaux as in Henry Peach Robinson's 1858 scenario of Red Riding Hood and a desire to document subjects never before recorded such as the ghostly faces, captured in salt prints in 1852, of those incarcerated in the Surrey County Asylum.
The exhibition is full of iconic images. Stieglitz's immigrant Jews arriving in the States as steerage in 1907, their heads covered in the prayer shawls. Arthur Rothstein's Steinbeckian 1930's image of the Oklahoma dust storms and the long-haired naked ‘streaker' at a 1974 UK football match, his privates decorously covered by a Bobby's helmet as he's escorted off the pitch in front of the amused crowd. The photographer Terry O'Neill claims that when he picked up a camera over 50s years ago, he didn't really know what he was doing but his photographs of Frank Sinatra in performance and in rehearsal capture the singer both casually in his dressing room and during performance, documenting a now departed show business legend that will allow future generations to be familiar with his presence in a way that was never possible before photography.
Writing this piece reminds me of the wonderful television drama, Shooting The Past, by Stephen Poliakoff about the threatened closure of a photographic archive. As it unfolds we become immersed in a world of memories. The past, we are reminded, is another country where they do things differently. As with the RPS collection, Shooting the Past tells the extraordinary stories of the lives of ordinary people, as well as those that became icons of their generations.
The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, 1852, Juan Carlos Maria Isidro, Count Montizon de Borbon©NMeM
The Gate of Goodbye, 1917. Francis James Mortimer©National Media Museum Bradford
Father& sons walking the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936 Arthur Rothstein©Arthur Rothstein
Frank Sinatra, London 1989. Terry O'Neill. The RPS Collection, National Media Museum Bradford © Terry O'Neill