Got to love a pun in the name of a serious exhibition. ‘Drawn by Light’ could refer to the pull of the nascent technology of photography in the early nineteenth century, which drew scientists, artists and wealthy dilettantes, mothlike, to this incredible new way of recording the world on light-sensitive plates. But it also reflects the ‘artistic’ tack of a lot of early photography. This was drawing with light: a noble creative calling, whereby the treasures of the earth and the human soul might be delineated, analysed, catalogued. A path to enlightenment, if you will.
A biggish chunk of this show of works from the Royal Photographic Society’s collection is so astounding because it is the product of artists-turned-scientists, scientists-turned-artists, self-taught geniuses and pioneering visionaries who had more in common with brave/naïve Victorian explorers than with modern ideas of what a photographer might be, or do. It’s also the reason why quite a lot of the photos are blinking peculiar: strange, moving, other-worldly.
Fin-de-siècle aesthete-cum-nutjob Fred Holland Day had himself crucified in pursuit of the snapper’s art. Not only that, but he starved himself for weeks in advance to get the right Cranach effect of a sackload of sticks hung from a tree. The resulting photograph, a self-portrait as the dying Christ from 1898, is psychologically troubling, but not for any insight it might afford into Christ’s passion. Rather, it is in his conviction that this new artform is more ‘real’, and thus more revealing. Time and again in this show you see photographers experimenting on the soul, from Hugh Welch Diamond’s 1850s portraits of inmates in Surrey County Asylum, to Erna Lendvai-Dirksen’s sinister taxonomy of racially pure children in 1930s Germany. The extraordinary poster image, a colour photograph of a young girl on a beach, taken by Lieutenent Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman in 1913, perfectly epitomises this dual revelation of science and art, while raising awkward aesthetic and moral questions. What was the Lieutenant Colonel actually up to with his wind-tousled ‘Christina’?
There are iconic images here: Ansel Adam’s ‘Moonrise’ (1941), Roger Fenton’s Crimean battlefield ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ from 1855, Don McCullin’s 1971 portraits of East Pakistani refugees. In the context of the show, though, they have a strange and unexpected new potency, as you appreciate that a lot of their impact is derived from the tortuous gestation of photography itself. It’s a real pleasure to see powerful unfamiliar works alongside familiar images imbued with a new powerfulness.