Yorkshire Photographic Union display thousands of images at Sheffield exhibition

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Even in the age of the selfie, the Yorkshire Photographic Union is proof there is still an art to the perfect picture. Stephen McClarence meets those behind its new exhibition.

As they walked through a Finnish wood, cameras slung round their necks, Judy Smith and her husband Mike were startled by a bird. “We suddenly saw an owl fly back to its nest in a hollow dead tree and then it just sat there looking at us, about ten feet away,” says Judy, a past president of Sheffield Photographic Society.

It was a great grey owl, one of the largest species of owl, with a wingspan of up to five feet. “Its eyes were wonderful. It was a magical experience. I took maybe 30 exposures of it and picked the best.”

And what a startling picture it is: the piercing yellow eyes; the watchful, knowing stare; the beak you wouldn’t argue with, particularly if you were a mouse. It was an understandable highlight of last year’s annual exhibition of the Yorkshire Photographic Union – an umbrella organisation for 73 local clubs and societies with around 2,500 amateur photographers all told. What a photocall!

The YPU is Britain’s oldest regional photographic organisation, dating back to 1899, when the sterlingly named Ezra Clough was made its first hon sec at a meeting at Bradford Grammar School.

Many of the union’s clubs go back far beyond 1899, though. Leeds, the world’s oldest, was founded in 1852, when photography was in its infancy and studio portraits demanded punishingly long exposures. Sitters had to stay as still as statues (whole days could pass).

The YPU’s clubs are spread across the county, from Todmorden in the west to Withernsea in the east, from Scarborough and Kirkbymoorside in the north to Sheffield in the south. From Aireborough, Barnsley, Batley and Beverley alphabetically through to Wakefield, Wetherby, Whitby and York. Among the more flamboyantly named groups are Gamma Photoforum in Shipley, Positive Image in Sheffield and the Picture This Photo Club in Withernsea.

In a typical Yorkshire week, there will be any number of club meetings, talks, outings and practical sessions. They might be discussing shutter speeds in Castleford, staging a New Members’ Showcase in Rotherham or having a Fun Night in Driffield. Hebden Bridge might be hosting its “annual battle” with Todmorden: telephotos at dawn.

This year’s exhibition opens today and competition is a key feature. Its 400 prints and digital images are selected from around 3,000 entries. They’re competing for, among many other awards, the Keighley Challenge Trophy, the Bryce-Thompson Cup, the Mabel Bruce Trophy, the Crowther Cox Silver Vase and, not least, the Yorkshire Post Trophy for Best Colour Open Print.

The exhibition is being staged in Sheffield, where I’m meeting half a dozen of the organisers. We sit round the dining table at the home of publicity officer Julia Greenwood, like a sort of domestic board meeting with a very loose agenda.

The half-dozen – all but one of them members of Sheffield Photographic Society, the exhibition hosts – clearly enjoy the freedom of amateur photography.

“If you’re a professional, you have to make your image suit your market,” says co-organiser Linda Jackson. “Whereas if you’re an amateur it can be more creative.”

Creativity is a strong feature of many award-winning images. Thirty or 40 years ago, photographers were generally content with their negatives (give or take a bit of retouching); today the original image may be just the starting point.

It’s now so easy to manipulate images digitally. If a landscape has a distracting couple strolling through the middle distance, they can be conveniently zapped out. If, on the other hand, a landscape needs a few people, they can be zapped in.

If a flock of birds is in the wrong place, it can be chivvied around a bit. “You’re creating a landscape in the way that Turner did,” says Linda Jackson. “Putting things in and taking things out.”

Purists may feel that this is “cheating”. Remember the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was dedicated to the idea of the “decisive moment”: the split-second when the composition is perfect. He would go back to his studio, toss a roll of undeveloped film to an assistant, and say, with total confidence: “Just print frames 4, 9, 25 and 29.”

The pungent chemical-swilled world of developing and printing roll films has all but passed. “Only one person in the club still uses roll film now,” says exhibition co-organiser John Scholey.
“Roll film is very much a niche market now – just like vinyl,” says YPU president Alan Stopher from Huddersfield. He pauses rather wistfully. “In a way I miss that darkroom thing.”

Many would agree with him. The darkroom was (is) a place for photographers to commune with their negatives; a solitary, meditative time in a dimly-lit enchanted cavern. You could argue, in fact, that taking photographs is in itself a solitary activity, that photographers are lone hunters. So isn’t it a little strange to have societies?

Heads shake round the table. Members can learn from each other, they say. “Photography is very much a sharing sort of hobby,” says Erica Oram, an ex-president of the Sheffield society, who drops in a perfect quote: “Photography is more about focusing the mind rather than focusing the camera.”

The half-dozen dinner-table guests have each brought along a favourite image they’ve taken. John Scholey has brought a portrait of his late mother and a friend. “To me the best images are ones that bring back memories; it’s a very personal thing,” he says.

Erica Oram has brought a snowy landscape (“one of the first creative jiggery-pokeries that I took”). More snow from Alan Stopher: a landscape of Staithes lightly dusted with it. Linda Jackson has brought a study of barnacle geese at sunset. And Marilyn Roberts, the exhibition co-ordinator, offers a strikingly still study, taken on roll film, of a veiled woman on the Ganges ghats in the Indian city of Varanasi.

“I had to wait until I got back from the trip to see if I’d got any worthy images,” she says and goes on to describe her perfect Sunday afternoon – taking action photographs (not on roll film) of the football team which her son runs and her grandson plays in.

“I’ll take about 1,000 images and whittle them down to 80 and then send them to my son,” she says.

Ezra Clough would have been hard put to picture it.

Yorkshire Photographic Union’s annual exhibition runs from today until May 18 (excluding Sundays) at Channing Hall, Surrey Street, Sheffield (across from the Town Hall). Free admission. ypu.org.uk.