Keeping the focus on city scenes

Sheffield Photographic Society: picture of Fargate 1986
Sheffield Photographic Society: picture of Fargate 1986
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IT has not always been considered the most photogenic of places. Sheffield, so opined 19th century art critic John Ruskin, is a “dirty picture in a golden frame”.

But one city group rather disagrees - and they should certainly know.

Sheffield Photographic Society has been putting the place in focus for exactly a century and a half.

The group - one of the oldest camera clubs in the country - is 150 years old this year. Now, to celebrate the landmark date, the 100-member society has opened up its archive of historical images exclusively for The Star.

A full exhibition of more than 200 snaps, to be held at Sheffield Cathedral, will follow in July.

“We’re hoping this will be of real interest,” says president elect Mike Smith. “There aren’t many photographic societies anywhere in the world as old as us - photography was only invented about 25 years before we formed.”

Certainly the images deserves to cause interest.

Among the pictures are everything from an early members outing to Maltby’s Roche Abbey in 1865 to Don Valley Stadium ahead of its closure just last year. In between, there’s the long-gone Norfolk Market Hall c1900, city grinders taken during the Sixties and - remember these? - the fountains at the top of Fargate, snapped in 1986.

“The society isn’t about just taking pictures of Sheffield,” says Mike, 67, who has been a member for 10 years. “In fact our annual exhibitions feature pictures taken around the world.

“But when you see some of the photos from down the decades, you realise they make a fascinating record of the city. What’s great about these pictures, though, is that they’re more than just documenting history. They are technically very good too.”

The society, itself, has changed just as much as Sheffield down the years.

Early meetings would discuss washing apparatus for plates and lantern slides while experimenting with magnesium lights. Membership cost half a guinea, women weren’t allowed, and trips would be arranged to far flung places - like Padley Wood and Lathkill Dale. Equipment packed into the back of a bus would include wet plates, dark tents, glass drippers and bottles of developer and cyanide solution - not forgetting the actual camera and tripod.

“Today,” says Mike, a retired NHS worker of Oakbrook Road, Nether Green, “you turn up with a camera and a couple of lenses, and you’re ready to go.”

The group’s first ever exhibition was held at Cutler’s Hall in 1882, while competitions became a regular feature in the early 20th century.

Women were allowed to join in 1902: “they are hard workers and produce pictures of high quality,” minutes note.

Indeed, their impact was instant. One member who joined in 1903 - a Miss Johnson - was still snapping away 50 years later.

There’s been lots of such long-lasting members down the years too. “You get the bug,” says secretary Linda Jackson, 65, a retired teacher of Bradway Road, Bradway. “It’s the thrill of the hunt that makes it exciting.

“It sounds daft but it’s that constant quest to get the perfect picture. You always think it might be just round the corner but, in reality, even if you got the perfect picture you’d still think you could get one that was even better next time.”

The appeal of a club like this, members reckon, is that while photography is essentially a solitary activity, a weekly gathering of like-minded folk allows ideas to be shared and tips picked up.

“Our programme covers visiting speakers, competitions and evenings devoted to members own work,” says Mike again. “We hold two exhibitions every year, and have regular trips.”

Members range from students to those of buss pass age.

Now, they’re busy organising that special 150th anniversary exhibition which will run at the Cathedral from July 7-13. It promises to showcase pictures from over the 15 decades and will include a timeline of events in both Sheffield’s history and the group’s heritage. That earliest shot from Roche Abbey is to be recreated by current members.

And, of course, the group, which today meets at Saint Peter’s Church, in Greenhill, is always looking for new members.

“Everyone has a camera these days,” says Mike, whose wife Judy is a past president. “But if you want to get better, I would say the best way to do it in an enjoyable way is join a society. You improve while meeting interesting people.”

Not even John Ruskin would argue with that.

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A snap in time: A brief chronology of sPS

1864: Founded on December 1 by a group of seven or eight largely professional photographers based in the city. The first president was a Dr John Ryan.

1882: First exhibition held at Cutler’s Hall.

1902: Women are allowed to become members for the first time.

1940: The group’s headquarters in West Street are damaged during the Sheffield Blitz.

1964: A schism in the group means the centenary anniversary is not celebrated. Some members say there is a suggestion the group folded briefly and restarted briefly in the late 1860s.

1984: The group celebrates its Double Diamond anniversary - 120 years. An approach to Double Diamond Burton Ale to sponsor the commemorative exhibition goes unanswered.

1989: Members run a special project to take hundreds of photographs during one day in Sheffield - September 20.

2014: The 150th anniversary is celebrated.