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Sheffield Photographic Society: A Brief History

As this Sheffield institution reaches its 156th year, Society member John Gorman takes a look back at the fascinating history of one of our city’s oldest organisations.

Lathkill Dale Outing 1879

Lathkill Dale Outing, 1879.

The Sheffield Photographic Society was established in 1864 with the object of affording common ground for friends bound together by mutual regard and a shared interest in scientific investigation. The first meeting was held on 1 December 1864 when a council was formed consisting of the city’s Medical Officer of Health, an artist and four professional photographers, one of whom, Dr John Ryan was elected President.

Meetings were held on the first Thursday of each month in the meeting rooms on Regent Terrace, off Glossop Road. Members spent those meetings discussing washing equipment and plate development, preparing lantern slides and experimenting with magnesium lighting.

Social events were also organised and two outings were held in 1865, the first to Padley Woods on 1 June, and a second on 10 August to Roche Abbey. A photograph of this outing is reproduced here with the ladies in voluminous skirts and gentlemen in tall silk hats. In 2014, members celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Society by revisiting Roche Abbey and replicating the original picture.

Roche Abbey Outing 1865

Roche Abbey Outing, 1865.

These early trips were quite an undertaking as it was the days of the wet plate and dark tent with the equipment heavy and cumbersome. As well as the camera and tripod, various chemicals such as collodion, developer and cyanide solution along with water, a gutta-percha bath, holders, dippers and plates in a light proof box all had to be carried.

By 1876 membership was up to 40 with membership subscription at half a guinea (10 shillings and 6 pence) at which it remained until 1945. In 1882 the society held its first public exhibition at the Cutlers Hall followed by another exhibition with over 400 photographs two years later at the same venue. A third exhibition in 1886 was not a financial success and exhibitions were abandoned for some time. It was finally decided in 1903 to hold annual members’ exhibitions which have continued to the present date.

It is from this period that another outing produced one of the best archive photographs the society possesses, with the 1879 excursion to Lathkill Dale “horse and carriage” photograph.

In 1889 the first annual dinner was held at the Masonic Hall on Surrey Street and from 1895 a yearly programme of events was arranged.

Another milestone in the society’s history was a rule change in 1902 which allowed women to become members. The early years of the 20th century up to the First World War were the society’s golden era with membership recorded up to 260. Today, 156 years on, the Sheffield Photographic Society offers its 100 strong membership a wide variety of activities.

The main season runs from September to May with a weekly programme of events at St Peter’s Church Hall. These Tuesday evening meetings are a mix of talks by visiting speakers, competitions and members’ evenings. During the summer months weekend outings and evening visits are arranged to places of interest.

1b SPS Roche Abbey May 2014

Roche Abbey Outing, 2014.

The Society has its own website and a forum to promote general discussion, and the sharing and critique of members’ images. The Society organises several public exhibitions each year allowing members to display their work. Other activities include:

  • An audio-visual group aiming to enjoy the AV aspect of photography.
  • Small informal groups meet regularly to critique each other’s images in a supportive and constructive manner.
  • Internal print competitions are held with member’s work assessed, with constructive comments, by a visiting judge. Inter-club events where members offer their work up for judging alongside other clubs, as well as in national salons and exhibitions.
  • Tuition and demonstration sessions are held on digital photography, equipment and processing software.

Inevitably the Society is suffering from the effects of Covid-19, and is unable to put either of its exhibitions on show in 2020. However, their new season of meetings commences in September via Zoom for the foreseeable future.

Filed under: #Photography

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