Drawn by Light – The Royal Photographic Society collection at the Science Museum | Exhibition review

Upon entering the Science Museum’s Media Space, an introduction aims to tell visitors what to expect from Drawn by Light. Well, what draws people there? The show’s name seems designed to be a witty play on words but, although nice to think so, probably no pun intended.
Even the last bit of poetry vanishes when, while strolling along the display, the voice of a man lamenting he’s “trying to find a theme” without succeeding makes it clear that something’s wrong.

The curators proudly present the exhibition as a rare chance to view key works from the Royal Photographic Society collection. There are indeed selected photographs from some of the most prestigious photographers of the world and a few noteworthy ephemera in this exhibition, which covers a period of nearly two-hundred years from the birth of photography to the 20th century.
Drawn by Light however relies too much on the historic value acquired by the images and artefacts it displays. It’s an ambitious project but it lacks cohesion and sense, leaving visitors at a loss as there’s confusion on why the photographs have been grouped into three separate rooms.

Apparently the pictures in the first section, “Continuity and Change”, have been intentionally put alongside each other despite belonging to different genres or periods to show which aspects of photography have remained the same and which have developed over the course of time. Perhaps those with more expertise in the field will read through the lines but, at a first glance, it seems like there’s no connection and that the photographs are just displayed randomly.

In the next sector, “A period of optimism and progress”, one again questions the link between the photos and the theme they should be related to. It’s nevertheless a first impression. Progress is shown for instance in Madame Yevonde’s “Self-portrait with a Vivex Colour camera” (1937), whose description explains the technological advancements used by that camera.

The final room eventually succeeds in giving a purpose to its display. “Personal vision” showcases images taken by the same authors in different periods of their career to illustrate their evolution. These photographers explored different themes, practiced with diverse kinds of equipment and often reworked on their drafts until achieving their desired outcome. Take for example Frederick Henry Evans’s “A Sea of Steps” (1903), result of a long search for the best shot.

To sum up, the exhibition is a unique opportunity to view all at once many masterpieces of photography, beautiful and interesting in their own right. However they’re more enjoyable when contextualised because it’s true that everything is subjective, yet there’s more than meets the eye. The curators should have paid more attention to that.

Verdict: ••••

Drawn by Light – The Royal Photographic Society collection is on until 1st March 2015 at the Science Museum’s Media Space, for further information visit here.

Watch the trailer:

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