The origins of the Royal Photographic Society

Though there had been previous attempts to form a society bringing photographers together, it was not until the Great Exhibition of 1851 that the idea began to catch on. The following year, on 22 December, a souree was held at the Royal Society of Arts, London, at which some seven hundred or so photographs were displayed, including pictures by Roger Fenton (Highgate Cemetery), Delamotte(The Great Exhibition), Du Camp (View, Nubia), and Fox Talbot (The Haystack). It was on this occasion that Fenton proposed the foundation of a photographic Society.

One of the obstacles to the development of photography had been Fox Talbot's patent enforcements. Negotiations had been taking place behind the scenes, and by this time Fox Talbot had agreed to give a free licence to every member of the Society to practise, on the clear condition that they did not trade in the art. (See Talbot and patents.)

The following month, on 20 January, a public meeting was held at the Royal Society of Arts, and it was agreed to form a "Photographic Society." Fox Talbot had been asked to become its first President, but when he declined, Sir Charles Eastlake, then President of the Royal Academy, accepted the invitation, and the Society's first secretary was Roger Fenton. The Society's aims were spelled out in the first edition of its Journal, published 3 March 1853:

The object of the Photographic Society is the promotion of the Art and Science of Photography, by the interchange of thought and experience among Photographers, and it is hoped that this object may, to some considerable extent, be effected by the periodical meetings of the Society."

Six months later Sir Charles Eastlake announced that Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert had graciously consented to be the Society's first patrons. Both had a keen interest in photography from the start, and The Times for 22 March 1842 describes a visit paid by Prince Albert to Beard's institution, commenting that "he ... expressed himself much gratified with what he saw."

By the end of the first year, the Society's membership totaled 370, and the Journal was proving an outstanding success, four thousand copies being printed each month.

In 1894 the Queen granted the title of "Royal" to the Society. The Society has ever since been encouraged by the Royal Family, and the Queen is the current patron.

A major development occurred during the presidency of J. Dudley Johnston, who created and developed the Society's Permanent Collection of equipment and photographs. This, one of the largest in the world, includes many of the original prints, negatives, transparencies and equipment - a collection which is priceless.

The RPS over its long history has had to adapt to changing times. Some of its earliest concerns (for example, the "Fading Committee", chaired by Fenton, and later its "Collodion Committee") may seem quaint, but were very real issues at the time.

The RPS has always been the butt of criticism, as indeed does any organisation whose membership is so diverse, and which straddles both the scientific and the artistic dimensions of its sphere of activities. Striking a balance is almost impossible. Strictly speaking, as the first edition of the Journal shows, the aim of the Society was to be "the promotion of the Art and Science of Photography." However, one of the first Presidents, Sir Frederick Pollock, clearly had other priorities; at the AGM in 1856 he questioned whether it ought to be an art:

"...the real name of photography is that it is a practical science."

He was succeeded by a photographic chemist and the next President Sir William Abney who at his inaugural address had said quite unequivocally:

"One of the main objects, I should say the main object of the Society, must be to encourage the scientific aspect of photography..... stick to science though the art critics denounce.."

One needs to take into account the fact that photography was very much at its infancy; the process was by no means easy, the chemicals used were often dangerous, and if photography was to flourish in the future, it was inevitable that the scientific aspects would be very much in the forefront of one's thinking. Herein lay the tension - one that has never been totally resolved, for even now an innocent question as to whether photography is an art or a science can almost be guaranteed to evoke some very heated and passionate debate!

However, in the 1880s the feeling was growing that it had become too much centred round scientific aspects, and out of this grew the Linked Ring. Only a few years later, George Bernard Shaw, in a playful mood, was suggesting that the Society was now becoming slightly paranoiac:

"the Royal Photographic Society mixes up optics and fine art, trade and science, in a way that occasionally upsets the critical indigestion.....

To add to the muddle, the R.P.S. has been so effectually laughed out of its old notion that photographs are to be esteemed according to certain technical conditions in the negative, that it has now arrived at the conclusion that a pictorial photograph is one in which the focusing and the exposure are put wrong on purpose. Consequently.... it is afraid to give a medal to any picture that does not look more or less mildewed, lest it be ridiculed for Philistinism. And whenever it gets a photograph which in its secret soul it thinks very good, it is ashamed to say so, and puts it in the "professional" section. As it happens, the object of this guilty admiration sometimes is very good. And sometimes the fuzzygraph which the Society puts in the pictorial section because it privately thinks it very bad is very bad. Thus, whenever the poor Society happens to be right, it makes the judicious laugh - exactly what it outrages its conscience to avoid..."

(Article in Amateur Photographer, October 16, 1902)

During this period there was a (sometimes not so friendly) rivalry between the Linked Ring and the Society, both groups proclaiming their own virtues and making side-swipes at the "opposition". But attitudes were beginning to change, and perhaps the RPS was beginning to have second thoughts. In its exhibition of 1903 the RPS included an "Invitation Loan Section". The Amateur Photographer for September 17, 1903, in an article entitled "The Photographic Salon of 1903" suggested that this "was calculated to injure the Salon and rob it os its distinguishing characteristics.."

In the somewhat verbose style of the day it continued:

"One point appears to have been generally overlooked, and my not be appreciated by those of our readers who do not remember the beginning of the Salon and the early years of its existence, when it struggled against the antagonism and contempt ...which were openly offered by those who rightly or wrongly posed as the responsible representatives of the opinions of the Royal Photographic Society members: these same "representatives," or some of them and their friends, seeing that the tide of public opinion is largely with the newer movement for which the Salon stands, now conceive the not very sportsmanlike idea of profiting by all that they before repudiated, and would gather the public shillings at the turnstile by exhibiting the pick of the very work which before they ridiculed and condemned, a course which we venture to think is not quite fair play."

The Society's deliberations are faithfully reported in the Journal of the Photographic Society, a Journal that has been printed continuously up to the present day and copies of which are in the Society's Library. Those seen by the author reflect the preoccupation with the scientific processes in the early days, and in some cases the jockeying for position within the Society, and fierce argument, that still exists today! There is, for example, a record of a fairly long meeting in December 1858, when a Mr. Pouncey was earnestly arguing in favour of his carbon process. The meeting is reported in over four columns of very small type, describing a heated exchange between Mr. Pouncey and a Mr. Maloney, at the end of which it reads

"Mr. Pouncey was about to proceed when Mr. Bedford said - As this is an interesting discussion and it is getting late, I propose that it be adjourned to another evening.

Mr. Thurston Thompson, just newly elected to the Council, immediately seconded the proposition and a doubtless exhausted audience were allowed to return to their homes!

The Royal Photographic Society today.

© Robert Leggat, 1996.