Images of a vivid pictorial history

Portrait of Christina by Mervyn O'Gorman, from the RPS Collection exhibition.
Portrait of Christina by Mervyn O'Gorman, from the RPS Collection exhibition.
  • A new show at the National Media Museum displays treasures from the Royal Photographic Society Collection. Yvette Huddleston reports.
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From the daguerreotype of the late 1830s to today’s ubiquitous smart phone selfie, the art of photography has come a long way in a relatively short time and a new exhibition at the National Media Museum, Drawn by Light, celebrates its rich and varied history.

The show features more than 250 photographs and artefacts from the Royal Photographic Society Collection which has been housed at the museum in Bradford since 2003. “The exhibition is designed to showcase some of the treasures of the Collection but also to celebrate the incredible richness and diversity of photography,” says curator of photography and photographic technology Colin Harding.

“The RPS has one of the best collections of the history and art of photography anywhere in the world and it is important not only because of its size but also in its depth and breadth, and the quality of the photographs.”

Founded in 1853 when photography was still in its infancy, the RPS is the world’s oldest surviving photographic society. “At that time, photography was a much newer invention than the Internet is to us today,” says Harding. “The founder members of the society were interested from the outset in the possibilities of this new medium and to improve photography by sharing ideas, and that is still at the heart of the society today.”

For the exhibition Harding and co-curators Claude W Sui and Stephanie Herrmann of the Forum of International Photography at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim selected work from over 250,000 images.

“What we tried to do was choose material that is broadly representative of the collection, iconic works, work by masters, experts, key photographers and key members of the society,” says Harding. “I didn’t want to curate a sort of history of photography. I wanted it to be much more celebratory.”

The show includes pictures by founder member Roger Fenton a photography pioneer who famously photographed the Crimean War, the experimental cameras and early work of William Henry Fox Talbot inventor of the calotype process and the work of Julia Margaret Cameron one of the world’s foremost portrait photographers, best known for her portraits of great Victorians such as Darwin, Herschel, Watts and Tennyson. Also on display are plates and heliographs and some of the earliest surviving photographs in existence, as well as letters and correspondence.

Harding identified three themes around which to structure the show – firstly “continuity and change” which looks at key genres of photography such as landscapes, photojournalism and portraits so that visitors can see how they have evolved. Secondly was to consider the RPS in its historical context with a recreation of a salon hang of the 1850s and the final theme was “personal vision” with images grouped by individual photographer to show how their work has developed over their career.

Although Harding is reluctant to identify a favourite image, he admits there is one that stands out for him – Portrait of Christina by amateur photographer, Mervyn O’Gorman. “I have always loved that image. It was taken before the First World War but it is so timeless and so different to the work that other photographers were making at the time.”

n National Media Museum, Bradford to June 21.