Edinburgh Photographic Society ready to celebrate 150 years of developing the capital

One of the oldest in the world, our reporter looks back at the history of an organisation that played a vital role in the early development of the craft

• Members of the sixth Annual Photographic Convention of the United Kingdom held in Edinburgh in 1892

TODAY we take for granted the ease with which we can capture images. Mobile phones have made us all photographers of sorts, and every day we post millions of pictures to Facebook and Twitter, Flickr and Blipfoto. Our lives are saturated with images, only a small proportion of which are ever printed.

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Photography has changed beyond recognition in the 150 years since one of the world's oldest photographic societies was founded. The Edinburgh Photograph Society (EPS) was set up in 1861 (two other societies, the earliest in the world, were founded a few years previously, both also in Scotland) after the 1851 Great Exhibition in London prompted interest in the subject, and the society will next month mark its 150th birthday with a civic reception at Edinburgh City Chambers.

The society still meets for a weekly lecture on Wednesday nights, just as it has done for the past 150 years, though the subject matter has changed somewhat. Early lecture titles include A new tent for photographic purposes mounted on a wheelbarrow (1865) and Cycling with the camera (1886).

Today photographic societies in general, and specifically the EPS, play an important role in the world of photography, and in their early years they were crucial to the development of the medium. In 1899, for example, EPS established a group to make a photographic record of some of the buildings of Edinburgh. In 1999 members again debated the merits of a similar project.

"After photography was announced in 1839 there was a lot of interest in the subject in Edinburgh," says Peter Stubbs, archivist at the EPS . "Someone was dispatched to Paris to find Louis Daguerre (the father of photography as we know it today] to have the process explained to them, and the first photographic society was soon set up.

There was a lot of experimentation in the early days. They worked without books or manuals and very much learned as they went along. Their experimentation was very important in the development of photography."

The EPS started out as the Photographic Society of Scotland, founded under the patronage of Prince Albert. However, a number of members found the group too formal and objected to the decision to exclude a particular photograph from an exhibition because it featured semi-nude females.

The group began to meet informally, then in 1861 in a room behind a watchmaker's shop on South Bridge they established the Edinburgh Photographic Society. The society had a mix of members whose interests spanned both the artistic and the technical sides of the art form. All had to be well off, however, to have the time and the money to spend on it. Many travelled as far afield as Spain, Sweden, Japan and North America in search of interesting subjects.

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In 1883 the society's then president, James Good Tunny, gave a talk about his tour of Yosemite Valley, where he carried "nearly two tonnes of impedimenta mounted on 16 mules secured under the most trying circumstances".

By the turn of the century, by which time the EPS had amassed over 500 members, things were a little less cumbersome (the box camera was introduced in 1888 as a more portable alternative to the dry plate camera) though members were becoming wary of the ubiquity of hand-held cameras.

In 1897, James Patrick, president of the EPS, cautioned that "only a few months ago, while spending a holiday in St Andrews, I saw glaring instances of abuse of the hand camera and instantaneous photography. Dozens of hand cameras were pointed within a few feet of old Tom Morris (the father of golf) and it mattered not how the light was shining, the button was pressed. This sort of thing can only be beneficial to the plate makers, and on seeing so much waste going on, I could not help remarking, 'it's an ill wind that blaws naebody guid.'"

No doubt James Patrick would be appalled were he to witness today's practice of snapping away with digital cameras and mobile phones with little thought to lighting or composition.

"In the early years, only a small proportion of the population had a good understanding of photography," says Stubbs. "Even fewer had the skill, the time and the resources to practice photography. The British Journal of Photography helped to advance photography by reporting the activities at EPS and other societies, and throughout the life of EPS, members have given lectures to other photographic societies throughout Britain, and have exhibited their work in exhibitions around the world."

Indeed the Edinburgh International Exhibition remains highly regarded internationally, attracting thousands of submissions from around the world each year, from which around 200 are selected for exhibition. The exhibition has been an annual event since the first was mounted just months after the EPS was founded.

For the past 120 years the EPS has provided darkrooms for members' use and more recently added a studio to its premises on Great King Street. Today its 235 members attend regular lectures given by photographers from all over the world, and the society holds photographic outings.

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This is a tradition stretching back to its origins. In the 19th century, regular outings were held, with groups travelling to locations across Scotland. Silver medals were sometimes awarded for the best photographs taken on such trips. In 1898, the EPS Cycling Camera Corps was set up, its main objective being "to promote the carrying of a camera by means of the cycle" and from 1861-1901 the society held popular meetings, attended by up to 1000 paying members of the public.

At these meetings, lantern slides of exotic places were shown to the assembled audience, and some men sat for their portraits. Titles of popular meetings included Views of old Edinburgh, Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn and A series of views of Aberdeen.

Today membership costs between 60-70 annually (it was 5 shillings in 1861) and is open to all, an approach adopted at an early stage in the society's history. Women were permitted to join, and in 1867 secretary George H Slight said: "In a good working society there should be a thorough mixture of different classes of the community among the members – such as professionals, working amateurs of all ranks, and others calling themselves amateurs who may have only a general hankering after photographic pursuits."

This last category he referred to as "ornamental members," describing them as "useful from their position and influence in giving a certain status to a society, not to be despised, and in assisting to augment the funds".

Today the society's values remain much the same as ever. Many of the discussions the EPS held 100 years ago are now repeated. Activities have changed, but the members still set out on excursions. On the first three Saturdays of the season they take new members to the Water of Leith to help them to brush up on their skills.

"The contribution of photographic societies has always been significant," says the current EPS president George Neilson. "In the early days they did so much to promote photography.

"Today the advent of digital cameras has made it more accessible, and it's easier than ever for people to take it up as a hobby. It has always, even in those early days, been a lot of fun."

• Visit www.edinburghphotographicsociety.co.uk for details

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