New Show at Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘Pepper No.30’ by Edward Weston National Science & Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library / © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Dulwich Picture Gallery’s “Unearthed: Photography’s Roots” is a fascinating journey from science to art and back to technology. It brings together over 100 works by 35 leading international photographers, many never seen before, as it traces the development of photography from the early 19th century to today. 

Karl Blossfeldt, Adiantum pedatum, 1928.Photo copyright Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Arranged chronologically and with a focus on botany and science throughout, the exhibition highlights the innovations of some of the medium’s key figures, including William Henry Fox Talbot, Imogen Cunningham  and Robert Mapplethorpe, along with several overlooked photographers including Japanese artist, Kazumasa Ogawa, and the English gardener, Charles Jones (1866-1959). It will be the first show publicly to exhibit work by Jones, whose striking modernist photographs of plants remained unknown until 20 years after his death, when they were discovered in a trunk at Bermondsey Market in 1981. 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulip, 1984© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

The first room showcases the Victorian pioneers who experimented with and explored this new technology. The early still lives are interesting but more as a technical than an aesthetic endeavour. The efforts by botanists to classify plants were greatly assisted by the invention of photography but photographers quickly moved beyond the scientific emphasis on specimens, to an exploration of the artistic potential of simple images.

Towards the end of the century, the addition of colour opened up many new opportunities. Kazumasa Ogawa, a Japanese photographer born in 1860 was able to reproduce 16 colour tones. His “Lily” is a fine example of the technique.

Kazumasa Ogawa, Chrysanthemum from ‘Some Japanese Flowers’, ca. 1894. Photo copyright Dulwich Picture Gallery.

By the early 20th century, photography was increasingly used both to capture and address contemporary social issues and to extend the scope of the new modernism movement. Don’t miss Edward Weston’s “Pepper” of 1937 or Gyula Holics’s “Peas” as striking examples of the latter. Josef Sudek used photography to comment on life in Prague under both the Nazis and Soviet oppression.

Gyula Holics, Peas, 1950s, gelatin silver print, Private collection, Derbyshire

The exhibition also underlines how nature photography has remained consistently radical, inventive and influential over the past two centuries with the final rooms in the exhibition dedicated to more recent advances in the medium. A selection of work by the renowned symbolist photographers Imogen Cunningham and Robert Mapplethorpe  highlight the coded language of nature in photography. Both artists used nature to tackle the oppression experienced in their lives by finding the strength and the sexuality of the natural subjects they photographed. This powerful symbolism is at work in Mapplethorpe’s “Tulips” (1984) and Cunningham’s “Agave Design I” (1920s)

Richard Learoyd, Poppies, 2019, 90 x 82.5 cms, Photo © by Matthew Hollow

By the end of the exhibition we see how technology has revolutionised the medium. Nick Knight’s “Roses” uses the internet to pull data and content from the digital world with extraordinary results.

Unearthed: Photography’s Roots is curated by Alexander Moore, Creative Producer at Dulwich Picture Gallery, and former Head of Exhibitions for Mario Testino. He said: 

“I am thrilled to present this extensive survey of photography which celebrates botany in its various guises – from Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautifully shot tulips, to Anna Atkins’ algae specimens. There is beauty to be found in all of the works in the exhibition, which includes some new discoveries. More than anything though, this exhibition reveals nature as the gift that keeps on giving – a conduit for the development of photography, it is also a force for hope and well-being that we have come to depend on so much in recent months. I hope the energy of this timely exhibition provides visitors with a new perspective on the power of the natural world – and perhaps the encouragement to take some pictures themselves!” 

This is great show combining an interesting technological and aesthetic journey. Go and see it if you can.

Unearthed: Photography’s Roots runs until 30 August in Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 7AD. Open Wednesday -Friday 10am – 5pm

Adults £16.50, Concessions £8. Advance booking essential.  For further information go to