Photo Show: Drawn by Light from The Royal Photographic Society Collection to open at the National Media Museum Bradford

Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858
Fading Away, 1858, Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901)
© The Royal Photographic Society Collection at National Media Museum/SSPL

 
Photographic archives and collections are priceless treasures capturing moments in time as well as providing a chronicle of the history and development of the medium. The Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection is one such example and is part of The National Photography Collection at the National Media Museum in Bradford which is widely regarded as a collection of collections. As with The National Photography Collection, the RPS incorporates both aesthetic and technical developments as well as key images by some of the most influential photographers of our time.

The National Media Museum, which cares for the Royal Photographic Society Collection on behalf of the nation, is exhibiting more than 250 highlights and treasures ranging from the birth of photography to the present day in the exhibition, Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection. The show will run from 20 March until 21 June 2015, so there is plenty of time to see it.

For this post, I spoke to Associate Curator Brian Liddy (BL) at the National Media Museum where the RPS Collection is housed to find out why such photography collections are important and to share some of the hidden photographic gems in the Collection.

MG: You acquired the collection, which consists of over 250,000 images and artefacts from the last 150 years of photography, in 2003. Is this figure still accurate? Have there been any recent additions to the RPS collection?
Brian Liddy (BL): Unlike most of the collections that make up the National Collection, the RPS collection is not ‘closed’ and we work in partnership with the RPS to add to it. An obvious example is that anything we acquire from RPS members and former RPS members or presidents goes into the collection. In the past we have also added Madame Yevonde photographs to complement the set that were already part of the RPS collection. One of the most recent acquisitons is Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, which was added to the collection in November 2014.

MG: When you say that you acquired the collection, does that mean that it was given as a donation, or was some payment made for it?
BL: In June 2002 a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £3.75 million was announced (at the time the largest ever HLF grant), together with a grant of £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund (Art Fund) and funding from Yorkshire Forward for the transfer of The Society’s collection to the National Media Museum.

MG: When did the first digitised photos from the RPS Collection go online?
BL: The digitisation of images in the RPS Collection started as soon as we received it and many can be seen online on our own website or the Science and Society Picture Library website. It is an ongoing task we’re constantly adding more.

MG: Who pays for the Collection to be looked after and put online?
BL: Funding for the care of the collection is predominantly from the grant-in-aid we receive from DCMS – it is the National Collection and as such belongs to the Nation. It is Museum staff who look after it.

The Onion Field', George Davison, 1890
The Onion Field, 1890, Photograph taken using a pinhole camera, George Davison (1854-1930)
© The Royal Photographic Society Collection at National Media Museum/SSPL

 
MG: Which three key images in the RPS Collection do you think are particularly important and why?
BL: Three key images are Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage (1907), which is considered, and debated, to be the first ‘modern’ photograph. George Davidson’s The Onion Field (1890). This image started the fight that led to the Photo-secession movement and William Henry Fox Talbot’s Portrait of Talbot’s Wife, Constance (1840) which is the first true photographic portrait. My personal favourite is Roger Fenton’s Aira Force, Ullswater (1860) because it’s just a beautiful photograph.

Aira Force, Ullswater, Roger Fenton, 1860

Aira Force, Ullswater, 1860, Albumen print, Roger Fenton (1819-1869)
© The Royal Photographic Society Collection at National Media Museum/SSPL

 
MG: Which is the earliest photo in the collection?
BL: The earliest is Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s Un Clair de Lune – a pewter plate from c. 1827 showing the first and only known example of a photographic process invented by Niépce. The discovery was announced at the Museum in 2010.

Un Clair de Lune (unframed)

Un Clair de Lune, c 1827, Photograph on pewter, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, (1765-1833)
© The Royal Photographic Society Collection at National Media Museum/SSPL

 
MG: Which better-known photographers’ work is in the collection, for example, for example, Julia Margaret Cameron?
BL: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Roger Fenton, Frederick H Evans, Peter Henry Emerson to name just a few.

MG: Why is it important to have a National Photo Collection, in particular what does the RPS Collection add to the overall collection?
BL: Photography affects every part of people’s lives on a fundamental basis. Without photography we wouldn’t have television, cinema, the masses of images we have online today. The National Collection cares for the objects and images that have created this history so it can be shared with everyone and preserved for future generations.

Separately, both the National Media Museum and the RPS had very significant collections in their own right, but when the two came together it was ‘hand in glove’. Where we were under-represented, or there were gaps in the National Collection, they were strong; and vice versa. It could not have been a better match.

MG: How important, in your view, is it that people know about such collections and how important is it that people look at such collections physically as opposed to online?
BL: Digitisation and viewing images online obviously makes the Collection more accessible to more people, and is therefore very important. However I would always recommend seeing the objects in person whenever possible, particularly items like daguerreotypes and autochromes as I’ve never yet seen a photographic reproduction that comes close to the real thing. The exhibition, Drawn by Light gives a perfect opportunity to do that, although the collection can also be visited by prior appointment.

Constance Talbot, WHF Talbot, 1840

Constance Talbot, c 1840, Salt paper print from a calotype negative, William Henry Fox Talbot
© The Royal Photographic Society Collection at National Media Museum/SSPL

 
MG: Do many people visit the RPS Collection?
BL: I’d say almost every single visitor to the Insight research centre at the Museum will be shown an item from the RPS  Collection. They’ll either request to see something, we’ll suggest it, or it will make up part of their general visit. The Collection also features in many of our photography exhibitions which are seen by thousands of people each year.

Drawn by Light is co-curated by Colin Harding Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum; Claude W. Sui, Curator; and Stephanie Herrmann, Associate Curator, of the Forum of International Photography of the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, Germany. Drawn by Light first appeared at Media Space in the Science Museum and is presented in collaboration with the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, where it will go on display in 2017.

Visit the Collection
Appointments are available during the third week of the month from Monday – Friday, 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm. To book, contact the Collections Access Assistant by emailing: research@nationalmediamuseum.org.uk.
Or write to Collections Access Assistant, National Media Museum, Bradford, BD1 1NQ. Places are limited, so please give us as much notice as possible to avoid disappointment.

Free Guided Tours
These take place from Tuesday-Thursday at 1pm. Places are limited, so please book in advance by contacting the box office on 0844 856 3797.
Visiting The RPS Collection.

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