Home of the world-renowned Royal Photographic Society Collection the exhibition will display more than 250 highlights and treasures by some of photography’s most distinguished practitioners.

The Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection, cared for by the National Media Museum, is renowned throughout the world for its iconic and historically significant images, as well as examples of the technology that shaped photography from the1820s to the present day.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Founded in 1853 as the Photographic Society, the RPS’s early members included Roger Fenton, John Dillwyn Llewellyn and many of Britain’s early photographers.

The Society started making acquisitions when Prince Albert, who along with Queen Victoria was a keen advocate of photography, suggested it should collect images to document the progress of the technology.

Having continued to grow over the subsequent 160 years, the RPS has counted many of photography’s best known exponents among its membership, while acquiring examples of their work.

In 2003 the National Media Museum, with assistance from the Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and Yorkshire Forward, acquired the RPS Collection and incorporated it into the National Photography Collection. Since then the Museum has been home to its 250,000 images, 8,000 items of photographic equipment and 31,000 books, periodicals and documents.

Co-curator Colin Harding, said: “Preparing this exhibition has been a huge pleasure and privilege. It has meant spending even more time with one of the world’s greatest collections of photography and rediscovering the incredibly rich and varied nature of the items within. “Researchers and visitors travel to Bradford from around the globe to enjoy and study the material in this archive.”

Among more than 250 remarkable, rare and sometimes unique objects, the exhibition features key artefacts that tell the story of the development of photography: Nièpce heliographs from the 1820s (some of the very earliest photographic images), the first commercially published book illustrated by photographs – William Henry Fox Talbot’s camera lucida sketchbook, The Pencil of Nature (1844 – 1846), and seminal works such as Oscar Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life (1857).

The Two Ways of Life, 1857, Oscar Rejlander, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Many historically significant figures from photography are also represented, such as Nièpce and Talbot, as well as Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Lewis Carroll and Hugh Welch Diamond. And the collection is constantly expanding: renowned contemporary photographers whose work features include Don McCullin, Terry O’Neill and Martin Parr among others. Steve McCurry’s famed Afghan Girl image, taken in 1984, is one of the most recent acquisitions and was added to the RPS Collection in November 2014.

Steve McCurry’s famed Afghan Girl image, taken in 1984 and acquired by the RPS in 2014, was featured on National Geographic’s front cover

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.

The exhibition is part of the 2015 Art in Yorkshire programme. Entry to the exhibition is free.

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection runs from Saturday 21 March 2015 21 June

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