The Royal Photographic Society has a long and distinguished history back to its foundation in 1853. For much of its existence it has been the place where matters affecting photography’s technical development and its role as an artistic medium were debated and reported on. Its publications and membership are a key resource for anyone researching British photographic history.
As a London based organisation until 1980 the Society was at the political, social and economic centre of Britain and the empire which, especially during photography’s early days, gave it access to a network of significant individuals and events, along with the ability to exert influence on a range of matters. The Society’s membership was far greater than any of its contemporaries and it counted many of the great photographers and photographic scientists among its number. The pages of its Journal are essential reading for anyone wanting to understand more about photography within Britain.
The Society receives regular enquiries from the public and researchers about former members, their activities and the Society’s history more generally. It also receives wider questions about the history of British photography. There is no detailed history of the Society, although there are plans to address this in the near future. However, there are a number of online resources available for researchers to consult:
- Past members. A searchable list of members of the Society from its formation in 1853 to 1900 is available. Based on Society minute books and extant membership records, this is the first place to look for information on former members. See: http://rpsmembers.dmu.ac.uk/index.php For the period after 1900 there are plans to extend the database up to c.1949 and develop further the biographic information on all those listed. Separately, the Society also holds a card index of members for the period c.1930 to c.1980.
- The RPS Journal. The Society issued the first number of its Journal in March 1853 and it has been published continuously ever since – making it the world’s oldest photography publication. The society has digitised and made searchable its Journal which is available here: https://archive.rps.org/. A printed set is also available. The most recent digitised years are only available to members.
- Exhibitions. The first Society exhibition was shown in January 1854 and it has been held annually most years ever since. Two online resources provide access to these for the period up to 1917. For the years up to 1865 http://peib.dmu.ac.uk/ details all British photography exhibitions, including those of the Society up to 1865 and http://erps.dmu.ac.uk details RPS exhibitions from 1870-1917.
- Society records. The Society’s early minute books, records and correspondence (where extant) up to the 1990s are held as part of the RPS Collection at the V&A Museum, London, where they may be consulted in the Print study room. For opening times and summary list of holdings see: https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/study-rooms The RPS also holds post-2003 records and older records deposited more recently at RPS House
- RPS Collection. The RPS Collection was largely formed by the Society from the 1890s, and particularly from the 1920s under curator J Dudley Johnson. It was sold by the Society to the Science Museum Group in 2003 and transferred to the V&A Museum in 2017. Consisting of some 250,000 photographs, around 8000 cameras and a library of approximately 8000 books the RPS Collection is one of the world’s greatest collections of historical photography. It is currently being catalogued and digitised by the museum. The photographs can be consulted in the museum’s Print study room and other material is available by arrangement. Part of the collection will be on public display in the museum’s new photography galleries which open in October 2018 and the photography research centre which will house the library and other material opens in 2022. For opening times and a summary list of holdings see: https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/study-rooms
- Non-digital resources. The Society also has other non-digital resources, including an index of obituaries in the RPS Journal from 1853-1990 and a list of photographers represented in the RPS Collection which can be checked on enquirers' behalf.
The RPS has plans to produce further resources including an index of photographers shown in the Society publication, The Year’s Photography (1923-1960). If you would be interested in joining a small group of volunteers to assist with this please make contact.
The Society’s new building in Bristol includes a small resource centre which will house a collection of photography reference books and material formed since 2003 along with some material relating to the history of the Society. It will also provide access to digital resources and the Society’s new collection of photography. The centre is open to the public by appointment.
The Society will also do its best to assist with questions relating to the wider history of photography or about the Society itself, either directly with information or it will direct enquirers to relevant resources. For questions or further information contact Dr Michael Pritchard.
Dr Michael Pritchard
Director, Education and Public Affairs