|Formation||20 January 1853|
|Headquarters||Bristol, United Kingdom|
|Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge|
|Simon Hill HonFRPS|
|Andrew Golding FRPS|
John Miskelly FRPS
Janet Haines ARPS
The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, commonly known as the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), is one of the world's oldest photographic societies. It was founded in London, England, in 1853 as the Photographic Society of London with the objective of promoting the art and science of photography, and in 1853 received royal patronage from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
A change to the society's name to reflect the patronage was, however, not considered expedient at the time. In 1874 it was renamed the Photographic Society of Great Britain, and only from 1894 did it become known as the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, a title which it continues to use today. On 25 June 2019, HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge became the Society's Patron, taking over from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who had been patron since 1952.
A registered charity since 1962, in July 2004, the society was granted a royal charter recognising its eminence in the field of photography as a learned society. For most of its history the Society was based at various premises in London; since 2019 its headquarters and gallery are in Bristol, England. Membership remains international and open to anyone with an interest in photography.
In addition to ordinary membership, the Society offers three levels of distinction - Licentiate, Associate and Fellow - which set recognised standards of achievement throughout the world, and can be applied for by both members and non-members, in all aspects of photography and vocational qualifications in the areas of creative industries and imaging science. The Society runs a programme of events throughout the United Kingdom and abroad, through local groups and special interest groups. The Society acts as a national voice for photographers and for photography more generally, and it represents these interests on a range of governmental and national bodies dealing with matters such as copyright and photographers' rights.
Photographers were slow in coming together and forming clubs and societies. The first was an informal grouping the Edinburgh Calotype Club around 1843 and the first photographic society, the Leeds Photographic Society in 1852 and claims to be the oldest photographic society in the world, although it had a break between 1878 and 1881 when it ceased to exist independently. In other countries the Société française de photographie was founded in Paris in 1854.
The catalyst behind the formation of The Photographic Society was Roger Fenton. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had raised public awareness of photography and in December 1852 an exhibition of nearly 800 photographs at The Society of Arts had brought together amateur and professional photographers. The inaugural meeting of The Photographic Society was held on 20 January 1853. Fenton became the Society's first secretary, a position he held for three years.
As Jane Fletcher has argued the changing nature of photography and photographic education in the early 1970s forced The Society to modernise and to become more relevant to British photography. An internal review led to constitutional changes, the introduction of a new distinction called the Licentiate in 1972 and six new specialist groups were established.
The rising cost of maintaining The Society's premises in South Audley Street, London, eventually led the Society's Executive Committee to look for alternative premises. The Council approved at a meeting on 1 April 1977 a move to Bath and the establishment of a National Centre of Photography to house the Society's headquarters and collection. An appeal for £300,000 was launched in the summer of 1978 for the funds needed to convert The Octagon and adjacent buildings in Milsom Street, Bath. The inaugural exhibition opened in May 1980 with the building officially opened by Princess Margaret in April 1981.
Although the Society's inaugural meeting took places at the Society of Arts in London, it was some time before the Society had its own permanent home. It held functions as a number of London addresses, some concurrently for different types of meetings.
Premises used were: Royal Society of Arts, John Adam Street; 20 Bedford Street, 4 Trafalgar Square, 21 Regent Street, 28 George Street (Hanover Square), 1 Coventry Street; Kings College, Strand; 9 Conduit Street, 5A Pall Mall East - used for certain meetings until 1899; 50 Great Russell Street; and 12 Hanover Square.
The Society's premises were:
The Society had collected photographs and items of historical importance on an ad hoc basis but there was no formal collecting policy until John Dudley Johnston was appointed Honorary Curator, a post he held from 1924 to 1955. Before Johnston's appointment the collection had concentrated on technical advances of photography, and he began add pictorial photography to the holdings. On Johnston's death in 1955 the role of Honorary Curator was taken over by his wife Florence and a succession of paid and unpaid staff, with Professor Margaret Harker as Honorary Curator over a long period. The collection was moved to the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television at Bradford (later the National Media Museum) in 2002; the move was supported by the Head of the museum, Amanda Nevill, who had been the society's secretary in the 1990s.
By 1953 the number of items in the society's collection had reached 'upwards' of 3000 items. At the time of the collection's transfer to Bradford it consisted of some 270,000 photographic objects, over 6000 items of photographic equipment, 13,000 books, 13,000 bound periodicals, and 5000 other photography-related documents.
The Tyng Collection, owned by the RPS, is a collection of outstanding pictorial photography started in 1927 by an American philanthropist and society member, Stephen H. Tyng. He established a foundation to promote and recognise photographic work of outstanding pictorial merit. The first colour print to be accepted into the Tyng Collection, in 1960, was "Madrasi Fishermen" taken by Dr S. D. Jouhar during his six-month trip to India in 1959.
The society's early records, Council, Committee and Meeting Minute books, are held with the society's collection at the V&A. There is no published or online record of former or current members of the society. Occasional lists of members were published by the society up the 1890s when lists were issued more regularly; from the 1930s membership lists were issued periodically and are now not issued. New members have usually been recorded in the Photographic Journal. Dr Michael Pritchard led a project to make an online searchable database of members from 1853-1900, published by De Montfort University's photographic history research centre. The Society has a card index of members from the late 1930s to 1980s, which it will search on request, and may also be able to assist with membership enquiries between 1900 and the 1930s.
From the Society's formation it has published a journal and other publications have been issued over the years.
The Society's journal was original called The Journal of the Photographic Society of London and for most of its existence has simply been called The Photographic Journal, it is now called RPS Journal. It has been published continuously since 1853 making it the UK's oldest photographic periodical. The journal, particularly in its early years was read and distributed beyond the Society's membership. Past editors have included Arthur Henfrey, Hugh Welch Diamond, William de Wiveleslie Abney, H. H. Blacklock, and more recently Jack Schofield and David Land. The current editor is Clare Harris.
The Society publishes a peer-reviewed journal devoted to imaging science and technology, The Imaging Science Journal (ISG), previously known as the Journal of Photographic Science. The ISJ is now published on behalf of The Society by Maney Publishing in print and digital versions.
The Year's Photography was published annually by the Society from 1922 until at least 1961. The flyleaf of the 1957 edition states: "This edition contains a selection from all the exhibitions held in 1956 under the Society's auspices which contained pictures suitable for reproduction There are also review of artistic photography and of the nature exhibition." The publication gives a broad overview of the state of British amateur and professional photography during the year.
Over the years the Society has published a number of one-off publications often in partnership with commercial publishers. These include John Wall's Directory of British Photographic Collections in conjunction with Heinemann (1977), Roger Reynolds (ed.), Portfolio One (2007) and Roger Reynolds (ed.), Portfolio Two (2010). The Society publishes an annual International Print Exhibition catalogue and increasingly publishes digital catalogues of its exhibitions.
There are no restrictions on membership, which is international and includes amateur and professional photographers, photographic scientists and those involved in exhibiting, curating and writing about photography, as well as those with a general interest in the medium. Many of the great names in photographic history as well as many well-known photographers today have been members.
The Society established special interest groups to cater for specific interests within the membership. These have included:
As of 2016 there are fourteen groups
Until 1895 membership was limited simply to 'members' with some minor distinctions for those living overseas, In that year the Society introduced a new membership category of Fellow and it now offers (from lowest to highest distinction):
These require the submission of evidence - photographs or written - which is assessed by competent panels before they are awarded by the Society's Council. The society also awards honorary fellowship, HonFRPS, to the persons who distinguished themselves in the field of photography. Usually, those awarded are famous and extremely known photographers in the field of art photography. Every year, no more than eight persons are awarded HonFRPS, including society incoming president and recipients of society's Progress and Centenary Medals.
In addition, the Society's Imaging Scientist Qualifications provide a structure leading to professional qualifications for engineers, scientists, and technologists whose professional activities are concerned with quantitative or mechanic aspects of imaging systems or their applications. These are broken down into four levels;
The Society has held an annual exhibition since 1854. The Society now holds an annual International Photography Exhibition, which tours the United Kingdom, and other exhibitions. At its new headquarters it shows four major photography exhibitions annually.
The Society runs more than 300 workshops and lectures throughout the UK that are open to members and non-members. Many are held at the RPS headquarters in Bath and range from an Introduction to Digital Photography to Plant and Garden Photography.
Each year the Society presents a series of awards to photographers and other individuals in photography. The recipient receives a medal.
The highest award of the RPS is the Progress Medal, which was instituted in 1878.
The Society's other annual awards are the: Centenary Medal, Award for Cinematic Production, Award for Outstanding Service to Photography, the Combined Royal Colleges Medal, the Education Award, the Fenton Award (and Honorary Life Membership), the Hood Medal, the J Dudley Johnston Medal, the Lumière Award, RPS Member's Award (and Honorary Life Membership), the Selwyn Award, the Vic Odden Award, and The Bill Wisden Fellowship of the Year.
The Progress Medal is awarded in recognition of any invention, research, publication or other contribution which has resulted in an important advance in the scientific or technological development of photography or imaging in the widest sense. It also carries with it an Honorary Fellowship of The Society. Recipients have been:
According to the Society's website this award is "in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography". Recipients have been:
This award is given to an individual for outstanding achievement or sustained contribution in the production, direction or development of film for the cinema, television, online or new media. Recipients have been:
According to the Society's website this award "carries with it an Honorary Fellowship of The Society. It recognizes major sustained, outstanding and influential contributions to the advancement of Photography and/or Imaging in their widest meanings." The recipients are:
Established in 1958 by the RPS in collaboration with the Royal College of Physicians of London, the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, this medal is awarded for "an outstanding contribution to the advancement and/or application of medical photography or the wider field of medical imaging".
According to the Society's website this award "is given for outstanding achievement or sustained contribution in photographic education". The recipients are:
This award, established in 1980 and named after Roger Fenton, one of the RPS's founders, is made for an outstanding contribution to the work of The Royal Photographic Society. Usually, up to four Fenton Medals are awarded each year and since 1998 this award carries Honorary Membership of the RPS.
This medal is awarded "for a body of photographic work produced to promote or raise awareness of an aspect of public benefit or service". It was instituted in 1933 when Harold Hood offered to present an annual medal for photography with a particular emphasis on work for public service. The recipients have been:
According to the Society's website this is an "award for major achievement in the field of photographic criticism or the history of photography. To be awarded for sustained excellence over a period of time, or for a single outstanding publication". The recipients are:
The Lumière Award is given for major achievement in British cinematography, video or animation.
An award, established in 2005, given to an ordinary member who, in the opinion of Council, has shown extraordinary support for The Society over a sustained period.
This award is intended for those under-35 years who have conducted successful science-based research connected with imaging. Sponsored by the Imaging Science Group of the RSP, it was introduced in 1994 in memory of eminent photographic scientist E. W. H. Selwyn, who was the recipient of the Progress Medal in 1971 and the Williamson Research Award in 1936.
According to the Society's website this is an "award offered for a notable achievement in the art of photography by a British photographer aged 35 or under, endowed in memory of Vic Odden". Recipients of the Vic Odden Award:
The Fellowship of the Year, inaugurated in 2012, was named after Bill Wisden for his 50-plus years service to the RSP's Distinctions. It is awarded for the most outstanding Fellowship of the year as decided by the Fellowship Board of The Society from more than 200 applications. Recipients have been:
The RPS established the annual Colin Ford Award in 2003 for contributions to curatorship. It was named after the first director of the UK's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Science and Media Museum), in Bradford, Colin Ford CBE.  It has not been offered since 2015. Recipients were:
The Davies Medal was instituted in 1998 and was awarded until 2015 "for a significant contribution in the digital field of imaging science". Sponsored by Kodak European Research and Development, the medal was in memory of Dr E. R. Davies, who was a former Research Director of their Harrow Laboratories. Recipients were:
An award, no longer awarded, which was given for achievement in the field of three-dimensional imaging, endowed by Graham Saxby Hon FRPS "in appreciation of the benefits of 50 years membership of The Society".
New for 2011 is the Education Award, for outstanding achievement or sustained contribution in photographic education, which goes to Paul Delmar, who taught Press Photography and Photojournalism at Norton College Sheffield for 30 years
There is no published history of the Society but the following provide historical background and partial histories. mainly of the early history of the Society.