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Photographic Society of Great Britain

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Photographic Society of Great Britain

The Royal Photographic Society
Motto Universa Vita Percepta (All life perceived)
Formation 20 January 1853
Headquarters Bath, United Kingdom
Membership 11,000
Director-General Dr Michael Pritchard

The Royal Photographic Society is the world's oldest national photographic society and the oldest photographic society in continual existence since its foundation. It was founded in London, United Kingdom in 1853 as The Photographic Society of London with the objective of promoting the Art and Science of Photography. In 1874 it was renamed the Photographic Society of Great Britain, and in 1894 it became The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. The Royal Photographic Society was granted a Royal Charter in July 2004.[1] and is an educational charity. For most of its history the Society was based at various premises in London. It moved to Bath in 1979 and since 2004 its headquarters has been at Fenton House, 122 Wells Road, Bath, Somerset BA2 3AH, UK. Membership is international and open to anyone with an interest in photography.

The Society offers various levels of distinctions in all aspects of photography and an Imaging Scientist qualification. It runs an extensive programme of over 300 events throughout the United Kingdom and abroad, through local groups and special interest groups. The Society acts as a national voice for photographers and for photography more generally and it represents these interests on a range of governmental and national bodies dealing with areas as diverse as copyright and photographers' rights. The Society's collection of historic photographs, photographic equipment and books[2][3] was deposited for the nation at the National Media Museum in Bradford in 2003.


Photographers were slow in coming together and forming clubs and societies. The first was an informal grouping the Edinburgh Calotype Club around 1843 and the first photographic society, the Leeds Photographic Society in 1852 and claims to be the oldest photographic society in the world, although it had a break between 1878 and 1881 when it ceased to exist independently.[4] In other countries the Société française de photographie was founded in Paris in 1854.

Founding and early history

The catalyst behind the formation of The Photographic Society was Roger Fenton. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had raised public awareness of photography and in December 1852 an exhibition of nearly 800 photographs at The Society of Arts had brought together amateur and professional photographers. The inaugural meeting of The Photographic Society was held on 20 January 1853. Fenton became the Society's first secretary, a position he held for three years.

Modernisation and the 1970s

As Jane Fletcher has argued the changing nature of photography and photographic education in the early 1970s forced The Society to modernise and to become more relevant to British photography. An internal review led to constitutional changes, the introduction of a new distinction called the Licentiate in 1972 and six new specialist groups were established.[5]

Bath Project

The rising cost of maintaining The Society's premises in South Audley Street, London, eventually led the Society's Executive Committee to look for alternative premises. The Council approved at a meeting on 1 April 1977 a move to Bath and the establishment of a National Centre of Photography to house the Society's headquarters and collection. An appeal for £300,000 was launched in the summer of 1978 for the funds needed to convert The Octagon and adjacent buildings in Milsom Street, Bath.[6] The inaugural exhibition opened in May 1980 with the building officially opened by Princess Margaret in April 1981.


Although the Society's inaugural meeting took places at the Society of Arts in London it was some time before the Society had its own permanent home. A number of addresses, some concurrently for different types of meetings, were used.

Premises used were: Royal Society of Arts, John Adam Street; 20 Bedford Street, 4 Trafalgar Square, 21 Regent Street, 28 George Street (Hanover Square), 1 Coventry Street; Kings College, Strand; 9 Conduit Street, 5A Pall Mall East, London - used for certain meetings until 1899; 50 Great Russell Street; and 12 Hanover Square, London.

The Society's permanent premises were:

1899-1909 - 66 Russell Square, London

March 1909-March 1939 - 35 Russell Square, London

1939-1968 - Princes Gate, London

1968-1970 - No. 1 Maddox Street (temporary premises)

1970-1979 - 14 South Audley Street, London

1980-2003 - The Octagon, Milsom Street, Bath

2004-date - Fenton House, 122 Wells Road, Bath. Officially opened 16 February 2005.

Coat of arms

The Society's coat of arms is made up of the following elements: Arms: These elements represent the basis of black and white photography, and that photographic images are perceived through the eyes with all light and energy ultimately deriving from the sun. Crest: The concept of the lynx on the crest derives from the fact that the lynx, in mythological terms, is said to have the power of being "all seeing" - into and through substances - and therefore is appropriate to photography and imaging. The device held by the lynx represents both the basis of photography - the rare and normal crystalline habits of silver halides - and commemorates the historic time of The Society at the Octagon in Bath. Supporters: The lions on either side of the shield with their ciphers (V and A) pay tribute to our historical connections and Royal Patronage dating back to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The lions are based on those on Prince Albert's garter stallplate at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. Motto: The motto translates to 'All life perceived' to indicate that the ability and potential for photography to observe and record (and thereby help us to understand) so much of that which constitutes our life. Badge: The badge is based on the device held by the lynx (described above) which in turn is taken from the old brand of The Society and it also incorporates and ancient royal crown.

The Collection and archive


The Society had collected photographs and items of historical importance on an ad hoc basis but there was no formal collecting policy until John Dudley Johnston was appointed Honorary Curator a post he held between 1924 and 1955.[7] Up to Johnston's appointment the collection has largely concentrated on technical advances of photography and Johnston began to concentrate on adding pictorial photography to the collection. On Johnston's death in 1955 his role of Honorary Curator was taken over by his wife Florence and a succession of paid and unpaid staff including Gail Buckland, Carolyn Bloore, Arthur Gill, Valerie Lloyd, and Brian Coe, with Professor Margaret Harker as Honorary Curator over a long period. Pam Roberts was appointed curator, a position she held until the collection was closed in 2001 pending its transfer to the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television (NMPFT) in 2002.[8] The move was supported by the Head of the museum, Amanda Nevill who had been The Society's Secretary in the 1990s.

By 1953 the number of items in the Society's Collection had reached 'upwards' of 3000 items.[9] At the time of the Collection's transfer to the NMPFT, now the National Media Museum, it consisted of some 270,000 photographic objects, over 6000 items of photographic equipment, 13,000 books, 13,000 bound periodicals, and 5000 pother photography-related documents.

The Tyng Collection owned by the RPS is a collection of outstanding pictorial photography started in 1927 by an American philanthropist and a Society member, Stephen H. Tyng. He established a foundation to promote and recognise photographic work of outstanding pictorial merit. The first colour print to be accepted into the Tyng Collection, in 1960, was "Madrasi Fishermen" taken by Dr S.D.Jouhar, FRPS FPSA during his 6-month trip to India in 1959.[10]


The Society's early records, Council, Committee and Meeting Minute books, are held with the Society's Collection at the National Media Museum where they are available to the public. More recent Council and committee minutes are retained by the Society in Bath. There is no published or online record of former or current members of the Society. Occasional lists of members were published by the Society up the 1890s when lists were issued more regularly, from the 1930s membership lists were issued periodically and are now not issued. New members have usually been recorded in the Photographic Journal. There is a project to publish an online searchable database of members from 1853-1900.[11] The Society has a card index of members from the late 1930s-1980s which it will search on request and may also be able to assist with membership enquiries between 1900 and the 1930s.[12] Current membership data is held in a computer database and remains confidential.


From the Society's formation it has published a journal and other publications have been issued over the years.

The Photographic Journal

The Society's journal was original called The Journal of The Photographic Society of London and for most of its existence has simply been called The Photographic Journal, it is now called RPS Journal. It has been published continuously since 1853 making it the UK's oldest photographic periodical. The journal, particularly in its early years was read and distributed beyond the Society's membership. Past editors have included Arthur Henfrey, Hugh Welch Diamond, William de Wiveleslie Abney, H. H. Blacklock, and more recently Jack Schofield. The current editor is David Land.

The Imaging Science Journal

The Society publishes a peer-reviewed journal devoted to imaging science and technology, 'The Imaging Science Journal', previously known as the Journal of Photographic Science.

The Year's Photography

The Year's Photography was published annually by the Society from 1922 until at least 1961. The flyleaf of the 1957 edition states 'This edition contains a selection from all the exhibitions held in 1956 under the Society's auspices which contained pictures suitable for reproduction There are also review of artistic photography and of the nature exhibition'. The publication gives a broad overview of the state of British amateur and professional photography during the year.

Other publications

Over the years the Society has published a number of one-off publications often in partnership with commercial publishers. These include John Wall's Directory of British Photographic Collections in conjunction with Heinemann (1977), Roger Reynolds (ed.), Portfolio One (2007) and Roger Reynolds (ed.), Portfolio Two (2010). The Society publishes an annual International Print Exhibition catalogue and increasingly publishes digital catalogues of its exhibitions.


There are no restrictions on membership which is international and includes amateur and professional photographers through to photographic scientists and those involved in exhibiting, curating and writing about photography, as well as those with a general interest in the medium.[13] Many of the great names in photographic history as well as many well-known photographers today have been members.

Distinctions and qualifications

Until 1895 membership was limited simply to 'members' with some minor distinctions for those living overseas, In that year the Society introduced a new membership category of Fellow and it now offers (from lowest to highest distinction):

  • LRPS: Licentiateship of the Royal Photographic Society introduced in 1972
  • ARPS: Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society introduced in 1924
  • FRPS: Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society introduced in 1895

These require the submission of evidence - photographs or written - which is assessed by competent panels before they are awarded by the Society's Council.

In addition the Society's Imaging Scientist Qualifications provide a structure leading to professional qualifications for engineers, scientists and technologists whose professional activities are concerned with quantitative or mechanic aspects of imaging systems or their applications. These are broken down into four levels;

  • QIS; Qualified Imaging Scientist and Licentiate (QIS LRPS) of the Royal Photographic Society (Level 1)
  • GIS; Graduate Imaging Scientist and Associate (GIS ARPS) of the Royal Photographic Society (Level 2)
  • AIS; Accredited Imaging Scientist and Associate (AIS ARPS) of the Royal Photographic Society (Level 3)
  • ASIS; Accredited Senior Imaging Scientist and Fellow (ASIS FRPS) of the Royal Photographic Society (Level 4)


The Society has held an annual exhibition since 1854.[14] The Society now holds an annual International Print Exhibition, sponsored by Allen and Overy, which tours the United Kingdom, an annual International Projected Image Exhibition which tours; a Members' Exhibition and Science exhibition; and monthly exhibitions of members' work at Fenton House.


The Society runs over 300 workshops and lectures throughout the UK which are open to members and non-members. Many are held at the RPS HQ in Bath and range from an Introduction to Digital Photography to Plant and Garden Photography.

Awards and medals

Each year the Society presents a series of medals and awards to photographers and other individuals in photography. The most important of these is the Progress Medal which was instituted in 1878. The medal is awarded in recognition of any invention, research, publication or other contribution which has resulted in an important advance in the scientific or technological development of photography or imaging in the widest sense. It also carries with it an Honorary Fellowship of The Society.[15]



There is no published history of the Society but the following provide historical background and partial histories mainly of the early history of the Society.

Jane Fletcher, '"Un Embarras de Richesses": Making the Most of the Royal Photographic Society Collection, 1970-1980', Photography & Culture, vol. 3., no. 2. (July 2010), pp. 133–152.

John Hannavy (editor), Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, London: Routledge, 2008.

Tom Hopkinson, Treasures of the Royal Photographic Society, 1839-1919, London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1980.

J Dudley Johnston, The Story of the RPS [1853-1869], London: The Royal Photographic Society, 1946.

Marian Kamlish, ‘Claudet, Fenton and the Photographic Society’, History of Photography, 26 (4), Winter 2002, pp. 296-306.

Michael Pritchard, '‘the interchange of thought and experience among Photographers’. 1853 and the founding of the Photographic Society', RPS Journal, 156 (1), February 2013, pp. 38-41.

Grace Seiberling with Carolyn Bloore, Amateurs, Photography, and the mid-Victorian Imagination, London: Chicago University Press, 1986.

Roger Taylor, All the Mighty World. The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860. London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Roger Taylor, Impressed by Light. British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860, London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Roger Taylor, ‘Claudet, Fenton and the Photographic Society’, History of Photography, 27 (4), Winter 2003, pp. 386-388

Pamela Roberts, Photogenic: from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, London: Scriptum Editions, 2000.

External links

  • Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society, 1870-1915
  • National Media Museum website
  • The official National Media Museum print website containing many images from the Royal Photographic Society's collections
  • United States Library of Congress
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