A brief history of the Edinburgh Photographic Society
1861 was the year that Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the USA. It was the year that the American Civil War began. In Edinburgh this was the year that the One o’clock Gun was set up at Edinburgh Castle and the foundation stone was laid for the Royal Scottish Museum. It was also the year that Edinburgh Photographic Society was founded.
Photography had been practised since 1839 following the discoveries of William Henry Fox Talbot, in England and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, in France. However, it was not until The Great Exhibition of 1851, organised by Prince Albert and held in The Crystal Palace, London, that photography caught the imagination of the wider public, and that photographic societies began to be established, first in Leeds (1852), then London (1853), Liverpool (1853), Manchester (1855) and Edinburgh (1861).
The inception of Edinburgh Photographic Society stemmed from dissatisfaction within another photographic society, The Photographic Society of Scotland (PSS). The PSS was founded in 1856 under the patronage of Prince Albert. With the physicist Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) as its president, the PSS provided lectures, demonstrations, outings and exhibitions to a membership including both professional and amateur photographers. However, despite its early success, some members found the meetings to be too formal, allowing little scope for discussion. Others objected to a decision to reject the photograph “Two Ways of Life” by Swedish fine art photographer, Oscar G Rejlander (1817-1875), from the 1857 PSS Exhibition because it included semi-nude female figures. Those dissatisfied with the PSS began to meet informally in Edinburgh, and on 20 February 1861, in a small room behind J Traill Taylor’s watchmaker’s shop at 81 South Bridge, they formally established Edinburgh Photographic Society (EPS).
The founding members consisted of J Traill Taylor who went on to become the Society’s first Secretary. Three years later, he moved to London to become editor of the British Journal of Photography, a post that he held until his death in 1895. James Valentine (1815-1879), whose company in Dundee produced photographic views of Scotland, and later postcards, was another founding member, as was landscape photographer Archibald Burns (1831-1880) and George H. Slight. The first ever president of EPS was James D Marwick (1826-1908) and in 1862 EPS elected six honorary members: Sir William Henry Fox Talbot, Sir David Brewster, James Sinclair (Earl of Caithness), Professor Piazzi Smyth (Astronomer Royal for Scotland), Dr Lyon Playfair (Professor of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh) and George Shadbolt (Editor of The British Journal of Photography).
The annual EPS membership fee in 1861 was five shillings and remained so until 1892 when it increased to 10s 6d to include use of darkrooms and other facilities in its then-new premises. Membership fees also included a presentation print for each member. By 1900, membership had grown t0 509, partly due to the availability of hand-held cameras and dry plates in the 1890s which encouraged more people to take up photography.
In its first year, EPS held its meetings in the Queen Street Hall, 6 Queens Street. For the next thirty years meetings were held in the National Bible Society Rooms, 5 St Andrew Square (1863-1885) and Dowell’s Rooms, 20 George Street (1885-1892). It wasn’t until 1892 that EPS acquired its own premises at 38 North Castle Street. The new premises cost £920 and consisted of ten rooms on three floors, fitted with a library, an enlarging room, and darkrooms with ruby lights for plates and yellow lights for bromide work.
EPS premises at 38 North Castle Street served the society well, but in later years there were demands for larger premises, preferably with fewer steps to climb. So, in 1925, EPS sold 38 North Castle Street and entered into an arrangement with the Royal Scottish Society of Arts (RSSA) for shared use of their premises at 117 George Street (1925-1929) and later at 16 Royal Terrace (1929-1952). Unfortunately, the RSSA was forced to sell 16 Royal Terrace in 1952, so EPS shared the Edinburgh Cine Club’s premises at Fettes Row for two years.
In 1954, thanks to interest-free loans of £1,055 from members and donations of £120, the society was able, once again, to acquire its own premises, this time at 68 Great King Street, a purchase that has served the Society well and remains its current home. It was purchased for £1,650, with a further £480 spent on plumbing, painting, electrical work, and refurbishment. Much of this work was carried out by a band of 50 volunteers. The new premises were formally opened in October 1955. Since then, work at 68 Great King Street has been undertaken by its members at regular intervals over the past 50 years. However, recent decoration and refurbishment has been carried out professionally, culminating in a major refurbishment of the interior of the building in 2009-10.
By 1980, the society had built up a large valuable collection of photos and equipment. At one time there were plans to create an EPS Museum, but this never materialised. Storage conditions for prints at the premises were not ideal, and three floods from burst pipes in the flat above during 1979 and 1980 did not help the situation. So, in 1987, many of the photos were donated to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and in 1990, the gallery staged an exhibition based on the Hill & Adamson calotypes donated by the Society.
EPS continues to hold its annual International Exhibition of Photography, which from 1949 onwards, has been held in August, during the Edinburgh Festival. Venues have included the YMCA Exhibition Hall, St Cuthbert’s Hall, Merchant’s Hall and, since 1996, EPS premises at 68 Great King Street. The number of International Print Exhibitions around the world has reduced in recent years, as some societies have had difficulty in finding the resources to stage them. However, the EPS International Exhibition continues to be one of the most highly regarded print exhibitions, with only a small percentage of entries gaining an acceptance. Since the 1950s, EPS International Exhibitions have attracted entries from 130 countries, typically receiving between 1,200 and 4,000 entries per year, from which around only 200 are selected and exhibited.
Too many photographers to mention have played important roles in EPS over the years.
Archibald H. MacLucas (18??-1954) was a landscape and portrait photographer who gave many lectures and demonstrations to EPS. He joined the EPS in 1897, but broke away with other members to form Midlothian Photographic Association in 1907, only to re-join EPS eight years later. He was elected EPS President 1917-18 and again 1941-46. By 1951 he was described as ‘The grand old man of EPS’. In 1954, he was elected EPS Vice President, but died the following day.
George Cruickshank (1908-98) joined EPS in 1939 and became Treasurer 1947-88 (except for a 3-year spell in the 1950s when he was President). He gave many lectures to the society on the art of developing and printing. George, along with Gracie Alison, was instrumental in acquiring the current premises at 68 Great King Street.
Portrait photographer, Gracie Alison (1917-2001) joined EPS in 1940, and was Secretary 1946-85, for most of the time that George Cruickshank was Treasurer. Gracie was a regular exhibitor in EPS International Exhibitions and was awarded Hon FRPS in 1957, and in 1964 became the first woman and the only Scottish photographer to be elected to the London Salon. As a key contributor and member for almost sixty years, the EPS now holds a Memorial Lecture each year in honour of Gracie.
Nature photographer, Sandy Cleland FRPS, AFIAP is well known for the many lectures he has given to the EPS and throughout Britain. Sandy has achieved many awards in international exhibitions and is, himself, a well-respected judge. He was elected EPS President (1985-87) followed by his daughter, Karen, 20 years later. Sandy was in overall charge of the EPS International Exhibition for 12 years in the 1980s-90s, and has held many roles on behalf of the Royal Photographic Society.
Today, EPS remains one of the oldest and largest photographic societies in the World. Still housed within its own premises at 68 Great King Street, it provides facilities such as darkrooms, studio and digital suite, holding meetings almost every night of the week between October and April, whilst continuing to attract entries from all over the World to its International Exhibition in August. The success of any society is dependent on the enthusiasm and contributions of its membership. Now at 150 years old, EPS can be considered a success story and the variety and quality of work by its members ensures this.
– Peter Stubbs, FRPS, AFIAP
(Written in 2011 for the 150th anniversary of the EPS. Since then, Sandy Cleland has had the great honour of being invited to join the London Salon, one of only 43 people currently, and the first member of the EPS since Gracie Alison)
For even more, please do visit long-time member Peter Stubbs’ excellent site, which is has a wealth of information on the history of the EPS, and photography in Edinburgh in general. You can find it here.
In 2011 we celebrated our 150th anniversary since our institution, and to mark the occasion we produced a book with Blurb, with a wide variety of photographs from members at the time. It is from the preface of this book that this article on the history of the Society is taken. It is an 80 page book, and is available to view in full and to buy here.