In the age of the incessant selfie, it seems fitting that the Science Museum has chosen to mount an exhibition dedicated to the camera. ‘Drawn by Light’, which compiles photography from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society – founded a mere 14 years after Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre pioneered the medium in 1839 – is a timely reminder of how we take for granted something that was in its early days both wondrous and terrifying.
Take the time to browse the cabinets featuring rudimentary cameras and examples of Daguerreotypes – the name given to what Daguerre produced – some of them hand coloured, all of them far removed from what we recognise as photography today. Other long-abandoned methods are showcased, including ambrotypes from the 1860s, encased in velvet-lined albums in keeping with the prestige of this newly discovered technique. There’s also a display case dedicated to William Henry Fox Talbot, the man who came up with the positive-negative process and published the original photography book, The Pencil of Nature in 1844, showcasing images taken with lengthy exposure times and setting out a vision for what the medium could achieve.
Also worth a close look are the three images by Joseph Niépce dating back to before the formal invention of photography. Niépce, who was among the first to explore how metals and chemicals could react and store images when exposed to the sun, may be rarely discussed today but his contribution was immense. Almost two centuries after he produced his heliographs, they remain astonishing examples of human innovation.
The remainder of the exhibition is a selection of photographs, bringing together more than 150 years of experimentation and creativity, from Lewis Carroll’s whimsical (if slightly disturbing) studies of children in dreamlike scenarios, to Henry Peach Robinson’s narrative tableaux. Peach Robinson was perhaps the original photoshop artist; in the 1858 piece, ‘Fading Away’, what seems at first glance to be one entire scene is revealed on closer inspection to be a combination of several.
Among the images on show are those in which photographers explored how the new medium could be used, like the paintbrush, to push boundaries. The nude movement study, Bewegungsstudie, by Rudolf Koppitz, from 1926, is startling and as evocative as any such painting, while Angus McBean’s shot of a young Audrey Hepburn as a goddess among Grecian ruins is a scene as surreal as any that Dali produced. Equally, you see the fraught relationship the new medium had with the old, for example Richard Polak’s efforts to replicate precisely the canvases of Vermeer using a camera.
Elsewhere, you see examples of photojournalism over the years – poignant pictures taken during the Depression in 1930s America telling of suffering and hardship – and how the medium was used from the outset to catalogue and index reality, as with Dr Hugh Welch Diamond’s tragic portraits of asylum patients from the 1850s.
There is early travel photography on show; not tourists grinning in front of the Taj Mahal, but carefully considered documentation of relics and wonders, including Francis Frith’s images of Egypt and the Himalayas. There are examples of the camera’s presence in battle, from Roger Fenton’s well-known depictions of the carnage of the American Civil War to grisly imagery from the Vietnam jungle. You glimpse how the still image gave way to the moving one, with Eadweard Muybridge’s repeat shots of a trotting horse, and you see how early exponents utilised it for science and discovery. A 1935 picture of a drop of dew on a flower is striking in its detail and a reminder of how powerful the lens really is.
There are famous photos here – Steve McCurry’s notorious National Geographic cover picture of the Afghan Girl, her unrelenting expression saying far more than words ever could – as well as less famous but equally astonishing ones. Look out for an eerie image of smoke over the New York skyline from 1936, the tops of the skyscrapers peeking out from within the clouds like a scene from a disaster film.
You could spend all day looking at this diverse collection of images, with a photograph to appeal to every taste. It’s an unashamed, absolutely riveting celebration of the power of the camera, appropriate for an era in which we take more pictures every few minutes than we did in the entire 19th century. And glancing at a photograph of members of the Royal Photographic Society Cub on an 1856 trip, the men sporting top hats, moustaches and austere expressions, you can’t help but think about how far we’ve come.
Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection, the Science Museum, until 1 March 2015