As its celebrates its 150th anniversary, Stephen McClarence delves into the archives of Sheffield Photographic Society.
Sheffield Photographic Society has put itself firmly in the frame to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The other week, members turned out in force at Roche Abbey near Rotherham to squat among the ruins and recreate the official group photograph of one of the first society outings back in the 1860s.
The backdrop of abbey buildings hasn’t changed very much, but the formal top hats and frilly bonnets and commanding poses of the Victorian photo-pioneers – gazing masterfully to the imperial horizon beyond Worksop – have given way to a more unbuttoned approach. Rather like photography itself.
Founded in December 1864, but not admitting women members until 1902, the SPS is one of Britain’s oldest photographic societies – the oldest is Leeds, set up 12 years earlier. Photography was then in its infancy, a magical novelty seen as much as a science as an art. It was the preserve of people with the time and money to indulge their interest – a fine contrast to today, when anyone with an iPhone can claim to be a photographer.
The Sheffield society, with its weekly meetings, competitions, talks, outings and twice-yearly exhibitions, naturally aims rather higher, as I discover when four of its 100 members – Ray Brightman, Linda Jackson, John Scholey and Julia Greenwood – gather round Julia’s dining table to take stock and look forward to the anniversary exhibition (the first of two) next month.
They’ve brought along portfolios of favourite prints, but increasingly, of course, photography is a digital medium. “People don’t hand pictures round like they used to when they’d been on holiday,” says Linda. We all look nostalgic, remembering the period charm of photo albums, the gradually fading pictures held in place by little silver corners. “No,” says Julia, “but they hand them round on iPads.”
Most images are now only ever viewed on screen... as happens here when we look at archive pictures taken by society members over the years or transferred from fragile Victorian glass plates recently discovered at a Sheffield library. There are evocative black-and-white scenes of people working in the cutlery industry; there are gritty Victorian market scenes with determined women striding out; society coach outings, probably in the 1940s, with a beret-wearing sophisticate cutting a dash among the flat-cappers.
Images like these will feature in the exhibition. Some of the street scenes will be mirrored by the same views today. Sheffield is now a less smoky place than it used to be, but also, you can’t help feeling, a less characterful one.
Photography has also changed. And no one here is better placed to discuss that than Ray Brightman, a member of the society for 60 of its 150 years. His interest dates from school days, when, as a trainspotter, he photographed steaming locos with a Box Brownie and read Amateur Photographer magazine at his local library. He bought an Agfa camera while on National Service in Germany – “it cost about £12, which seemed a fortune” – and, returning to his still-industrial home city, joined the SPS.
“The society was heavily peppered with professional photographers from the steelworks,” he recalls. “I went along thinking I knew everything about photography, but I knew nothing.”
It was a pre-digital world of flashbulbs and exposure meters, of roll films and developing tanks and the thrill of gingerly unwinding newly developed negatives from their spools and hoping that everything would be perfectly exposed and in focus. And then, when the negatives had dried, spending long hours in darkrooms, enchanted caverns of orange light, to make the first crucial print and swish the printing paper backwards and forwards in trays of pungent chemicals that could do terrible things to your hands.
I know this to my cost. I still have my father’s rickety old 1950s enlarger – looking like something out of Dan Dare – down in the cellar. A keen amateur photographer who joined his firm’s camera club (still lifes and gleaming cars a speciality), he introduced me to photography when I was at junior school.
“It’s over 20 years since I did darkroom work,” says Ray. “I miss it in a way but once you go digital it’s all so much easier.” Fellow SPS-members – the membership includes professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs - share this ambivalence. Linda Jackson rhapsodises about “the magic in the darkroom of seeing the image come up in the tray” but is now a disciple of digital. “I took 500 pictures at the weekend on a trip to Bempton cliffs to photograph gannets,” she says.
But surely part of the art and skill, the challenge and discipline, of photography is to wait for what Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the very greatest 20th century photographers, called “the decisive moment”, when all aspects of the picture’s composition coalesce in the viewfinder?
Then there’s the whole business of image manipulation, once time-consumingly difficult, now beguilingly easy. You think the man in the red pullover spoils the composition of your latest picture? Move him; try him top-left rather than bottom-right. Or – look, why beat about the bush? – just zap him and put someone else in.
I tentatively suggest that moral issues, issues of artistic integrity, are involved here. “Yes, if it’s a news picture,” says John. “But if it’s a scenic...”
“People who aren’t into photography and don’t know what can be done would expect pictures to be literal representations,” says Julia.
So is it tantamount to cheating? “Everything from the beginning of photography has been cheating,” says Linda.
Cheating or not, no one will dispute the convenience of digital photography. Unlike their Victorian counterparts, today’s society outings don’t have to involve truckloads of cumbersome equipment, with heavy cameras, tents and bottles of lethal chemicals.
Even so, there are some things that even digital expertise can’t guarantee. A recent trip to photograph bluebells in a Sheffield wood had to be brought forward a week. The explanation was on the events diary: “Date changed as bluebells are early.”
• Sheffield Photographic Society’s 150th anniversary exhibitions are at Sheffield Cathedral (July 7 to 13) and the city’s Winter Garden (November 24 to 30). Free admission. www.sheffield-photographer.org.uk