Norwich & District Photographic Society

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About Norwich & District Photographic Society

Summary

The Norwich and District Photographic Society is one of the oldest such organisations in the country.  It had its beginnings during the middle years of the 19th century when in June 1854 a number of local people with an interest in the science of photography formed the Norwich Photographic Society.

This society existed for only seven years but during that time it had an influence on the development of photography far greater than its provincial origins merited with reports about its meetings in the archives of the Royal Photographic Society.The present society was formed in 1903 when a group of photographers from other organisations such as the YMCA and the Teachers’ Field Club, together with a number of interested individuals, met under the guidance of Albert Edward Coe.  Since then it has met regularly although during the two world wars activities were curtailed and the Annual Exhibitions were suspended.Today, NSPS’s annual season has something for everyone being jam-packed with fantastic presentations from accomplished photographers, practical workshops and tutorials, field trips, special interest groups, the usual photographic competitions and much more....

Interested in improving your or just starting out then why not come along and see what we have to offer...?  NDPS meets every Tuesday evening during the season (from the first week in September until the end of May the following year) at 7:15pm in the Methodist Church Hall on Chapel Field Road, Norwich, NR2 1SD.

Early His‍‍‍tory

In the early years of the nineteenth century the fusion between science and art that had been sought for so long was realised.  For many years it had been known that images of objects and scenery could be thrown, through the lenses of a camera obsura, onto a plane surface.  Artists had used this method to assist in the production of paintings, but it had not been possible to make the images permanent. Now, everything was to change.

By 1837 in France, after a decade of experimentation Louis Daguerre introduced his new photographic process, which, despite the quality of the finished picture, suffered from the drawback of being a one-off, incapable of being reproduced. By 1837, Daguerre’s process had been widely publicised and, because the French government had decreed that it should not be patented in France, was taken up enthusiastically by many keen workers there.Meanwhile in this country, William Henry Fox-Talbot, working on completely different principles was elaborating the Talbotype, soon to be renamed Calotype, process. Introduced in 1840, this gave a negative on sensitised paper from which numerous, though inferior, positive prints could be made.

Both Daguerre, in this country, and Fox-Talbot protected their processes with patents that precluded their unrestricted use.  These limitations delayed the active involvement of the wider public for several years.

In England, Daguerre had secretively patented his process and turned to the commercial side of photography by licensing its use to studio operators.  After a number of unsuccessful attempts to open Daguerreotype studios by licensees in this country, John Beard, a London coal merchant, acquired a license and opened a flourishing studio in London in 1841.  So successful was this business that in a short time he opened a number of provincial studios in Southampton, Manchester and Liverpool.

On 2nd December 1843, an advertisement appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle that announced that John Beard was about to open another studio in Norwich that would produce life-like likenesses in a few seconds taken by the action of light. Photography had arrived in Norwich…!

During the following decade, a number of other entrepreneurs opened studios in the city. J R Sawyer was advertising his ‘Photographic Gallery’ at 42 London Street in January 1856, calling himself the ‘Resident Artist’ established for three years’.  Sawyer was a key figure in the photographic life of the city and, in due course, formed one of the tangible links between photography in the 1850s and the Norwich and District Photographic Society.‍‍‍

Under extreme pressure, Fox-Talbot relaxed the terms of his patents for amateurs and it was possible to obtain rights to use the process.  Amateur photography in Norwich commences with the involvement of Thomas Damant Eaton in the mid-1840s.  Eaton was a cultured man, involved in the silk industry in the city, a musician, with a literary bent and an interest in everything artistic.  Eaton took a great deal of pleasure in his immediate surroundings and early photographs (1844-1845) were taken in the vicinity of his home in Chapel Field. He retired from business in 1846 and for many years thereafter gave much time to his photographic work, enjoying the friendship of fellow workers.

Sometime in the early 1850s, Eaton gathered around him a circle of men who had also shown interest in the rapid development of photographic processes. It is intriguing to speculate to how this disparate group came together in the first place. One possibility is that some, at least, were fellow members of a larger body, the Literary and Scientific Institution, which met from time to time at the Museum in St. Andrews.

It is also likely that such men would have become readers of Notes and Queries a periodical first published in 1849 that set out ‘to bring together the ideas and the wants of men engaged in the same lines of action or enquiry’.

One common contributor to Notes and Queries was Dr Hugh Welch Drummond.  Drummond had been educated in Norwich School, became an articled pupil at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1824 and a pupil at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1828.  After qualifying, he specialised in mental illness – a field in which he used early photography to record the physiognomy of some of his patients.  Diamond had other interest, particularly in the collection of engravings and etchings.  This interest led to his involvement in photography and in the late 1840s he met up with similarly minded men in a small group known as the Calotype Society.  Amongst the other members was one of his patents, Frederick Scott Archer, who, in 1850, supplied Diamond with the necessary materials to process his own photographs using his newly discovered wet solution process.

Like Diamond, T D Eaton had been educated at Norwich School.  Although he was nine years senior to Diamond, Eaton would have been aware of his activities.  In any case, Diamond continued to have an arms-length connection with the city and is known to have returned on a number of occasions.  It is probable that these visits would have provided an opportunity for the two men to meet and share their common pursuit.

Further, Diamond made major contributions to ‍‍‍Notes and Chronicles at the time, that were so well received in Norwich that in 1853 the circle of photographers brought together by Eaton wrote to the magazine expressing their thanks and saying how much they had learnt from Diamond’s contributions. The common interest of this group led to the formation of the Norwich Photographic Society in 1854. The new society was only the sixth of its kind to be formed in this country. Eaton himself was elected President, and other members specifically mentioned in reports were Dr James Howes, G R Pitt, J R Sawyer, Dr W H Ranking, Charles Morse, W Bransby Francis, Henry Harrod, J Stewart, F T Keith, T Lound and Henry Pulley.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1850s the Norwich Society was in decline.  There had been no further dramatic developments in photographic processing in the previous ten years or so, and whilst it was still possible to tinker with the existing processes, there did not appear to be much more to learn.

Sometime in 1861 the Norwich Photographic Society was dissolved.  It was not alone.  The photographic societies in Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham, Brighton and probably others, all of which were of the same vintage, suffered the same fate. Only London (later the Royal), Manchester and Edinburgh Photographic Societies have survived.

Norwich & District Photographic Society

Strangely, the Norwich Society folded just as the great breakthrough in photography was about to take place. For years, photographers had struggled with all the inconveniences of the wet plate – in addition to the camera it was necessary to carry bottles of the liquid solutions, dishes in which to mix chemicals, heavy glass plates and some kind of darkroom covering in which to work. No wonder interest in the pursuit was beginning to wane.

A new era was about to dawn.  Throughout the 1850s and early 1860s chemists were struggling to find a ‘dry’ alternative and by the 1870s a number of firms, including the fledgling firm of Ilford were manufacturing their dry plates.  However, another new product was at hand. Celluloid had been invented in 1861 but it took some time before it had been improved to the state in which it could be used instead of glass.  Eastman Kodak was granted a patent for celluloid based film in 1889 and the age of film as we know it had arrived.

Mass production of cameras and photographic material led to a rapid increase in their use. Although most of the new generation of users were content to follow the instructions and leave the processing to the increasing number of firms offering developing and printing, there was also a mushrooming of clubs and societies catering for the more demanding amateur. This time Norwich was left behind.  The number of such groups in this country grew more than six-fold in the ten years between 1885 and 1895 from 40 to 250. A brief, anonymous letter to the local press found in a scrap-book of the period shows that at least one person was not happy with the situation.  However, the Norwich amateurs of photography were going to have to wait quite some time before the need was satisfied.

Meanwhile, J R Sawyer, the last survivor of the now defunct Norwich Photographic Society was successfully building his photographic business in London Street, Norwich and was about to expand his business interests to London.

As Sawyer became more and more involved with his business in London and had moved his home to Ealing by the time of the 1881 census he was necessarily losing interest in his business in Norwich.  By 1888 the business at London Street that had become a Mecca for the members of the earlier society had been acquired by Albert Edward Coe and was about to take on the same role for the members of its successor.

Through his early association with J R Sawyer, Albert Edward Coe provides a link with the original Norwich Photographic Society.  By 1903, he had been in business for more than ten years and his son, Albert, had joined him. They had amassed a wealth of experience, which they were willing to share with their customers, and it is not difficult to assume that there would have been many discussions, on their premises, about matters of common interest in the photographic world.  This rapport would have provided fertile ground in which to sow the concept of a new meeting place for people who shared a common interest in photography.‍‍‍

In March 1921, Edward Peake, the first Vice-President of Norwich and District Photographic Society, spoke to the members’ meeting about the origins of the Society and mentions exploratory meetings held in a room over the Castle Gateway.  There are no other records concerning these meetings but the Eastern Daily Press report of the inaugural meeting on June 12th, 1903 refers to a meeting of interested parties, presided over by Mr E J Brown, held the previous month at the Technical Schools.  It was this meeting that recommended that a new club should be formed and that the name should be the Norwich and District Photographic Society. Albert Edward Coe became the first President of the Society.