The Amateur Excursion and the Sociable Production of Photographic Knowledge

Elizabeth Edwards

TO THE COMMITTEE ARRANGING OUTINGS

May we ask, as men not knowing,

What your real intentions are?

Will you kindly see we’re going

Far enough – but not too far

 

Take us where the time-worn trees are,

Trees whose tangled branches touch

On the grass-grown glades beneath them,

Casting shade – but not too much.

 

Foregrounds find with rugged masses,

Bits where broad-leaved burdocks grow,

Ponds, with graceful reeds and grasses

Bending low – but not too low.

 

Churches old, provide, or towers,

Bold effects against the light,

Heights and uplands gay with flowers,

Brilliant skies – but not too bright.

 

With showy sunsets do not fail,

Rising mists if so desired,

Bringing us back by moonlight pale

Tired enough – bit not too tired. [1]

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

In this short paper I consider the sociability of late nineteenth century amateur photographers. My account addresses the way in which these photographers constituted a community of practice, identified through networks of value and social interaction.  I am looking in particular at this community of practice as a site for the reproduction and consolidation of photographic values, articulated through interactions in club rooms, salons and in particular in photographic excursions as situated activities integral to the production of photographs. I shall argue, as the little poem reproduced above suggests (from a book of literary jottings circulated by West Surrey Photographic Society around 1900), that the photographic excursion negotiated the relations between aesthetics, technology, sociability and embodiment - the ‘time-worn”, the “casting shade”, the “we” and the “tired” – as a performance and transmission of photographic sociability and value.

Throughout, I am keeping my theory ‘close to the ground’, as Clifford Geertz once described it [2], in order to allow the voices of the amateur photographers themselves to come through - getting close enough to hear what they are saying, and then trying to understand why they are saying it. What are the values, concerns and significances that frame their activities?  This is an anthropological question and what follows is an ethnographic account that might contribute to answers to that question.  The first premise of anthropological research is that one listens to people’s account of their world, take it seriously, and attempt to explain how such a world view might be constructed and then understood. This ethnographic density is necessary if we are to move beyond the assumptions that have often shaped the discussion of amateur photography. [3] 

Consequently, it is necessary to consider amateur photographers not only in terms of the images they made, but in terms of sets of social interactions by which an imagined community was cohered, through sets of values and practices, aspirations and satisfactions.  For, above all, there was a sense of commitment and seriousness that valued knowledge and skill and amateur photographers sought to reproduce those values within the collective. I shall argue that these values were embodied and articulated through the actions and practices of photographers. It is this that defines them, not merely the images that resulted from these practices. So while theoretical and analytical concerns weave their way through my account, its primary focus is the experience of amateur photographers as they went about the serious business of taking photographs.

 

The Photographic Excursion

A mainstay of amateur practice during the summer months was the photographic excursion. 

While individuals clearly undertook their own photographic excursions, my interest is in those organised by photographic societies and clubs. Such excursions offered the ordinary photographer an immersive seeing which encompassed not only the act of making photographs itself, but the experienced environment, articulated through the micro-acts of social exchange, and above all the reproduction of photographic values through collective practice.

Club and society excursions for the forthcoming late spring and summer were planned over the winter months, either by a sub-committee of a photographic society or by the whole committee depending on size and forms of organisation.  Excursions, or rambles as they were often called, were either full day or half a day, and there is evidence that the more local an excursion the larger numbers it attracted, probably on grounds of cost, for there is equally evidence that for some members the cost of excursions could be prohibitive. Thus the aspirations of excursions to some extent reflected the social make-up of individual societies and their members’ financial and leisure resources – a tram ride to a village on the edge of a city as opposed a complicated train journey to a more distant antiquity or beauty spot.

It should be noted however that photographic excursions were also closely linked to other leisure pursuits such as natural history, archaeology, cycling and rambling which, like photography in the late nineteenth century, were experiencing a broadening social base. Such pursuits, including photography, were part of the belief in useful leisure and rational recreation that informed civic society, the regulation of public spaces, education and cultural institutions in the nineteenth century. They were also linked to the negotiation of social status, self-improvement and aspiration over a wide social range. [4] This is reflected in the language of excursions.  There seems to be some level of qualitative meaning in the different words used: excursion, ramble, outing, field meeting or expedition, according to the pattern of sociability and observation aspired too, but these categories are also fluid. The word ‘ramble / rambling’, for example, was also increasingly being used to describe leisure walking in the open air. Walking was an activity that was becoming increasingly popular across all classes at this period with the increase in both leisure time and mobility, and was seen as a wholesome and useful form of leisure. At the same time, the language of excursions emerges variously from that of antiquarianism on the one hand, and scientific observation and technical demonstration through ‘fieldwork’ on the other, indicating the seriousness and rationality of such photographic activities.

Each excursion had a leader who not only made the access, travel and catering arrangements, but also in some cases made suggestions as to subject matter. Leaders set the aesthetic framework in which amateurs operated, but such practices were also a performance of a larger collective sense of photographic value and appropriateness.  The excursion had to be so organised that everyone had the opportunity to make photographs in a way that avoiding the crowding of subjects and thus assured access to the focus of photographic desire:

a leader that knows his business will already have arranged both his groups and his pictures, and he will take care that group follows group, and picture succeeds picture, in such a way that no member of the party is ever idle, and that no one is placed at serious disadvantage as to his point of view. [5]

Excursions were figured around places of picturesque, historical and landscape interests. They were chosen to appeal to a range of interests within the membership and to address genre categories which embedded aesthetic values. For instance, Birmingham Photographic Society in 1891 organised excursions, amongst others, to the  picturesque village of Hampton in Arden (lead by W.J. Harrison), the late medieval house of Compton Wynates, the small town and village of Tamworth and Anstey, and to the city of Leicester (which was led by George Bankart of Leicester Photographic Society). In other years they visited the beauty spot of Dovedale, the romantic medieval Stokesay Castle in Shropshire and the ruins of Buildwas Abbey.[6] Sometimes sketch maps were provided to guide photographers through historical and aesthetic space, as was the case in Leeds Photographic Society’s excursion to York in 1905.[7]

The ‘Reports from Societies’ and ‘Society Meetings” sections in the photographic press, and especially in the local press, are full of notices and accounts of such excursions and rambles across the country in the summer months. [8] Reports of these events variously noted what was photographed, who was there, where they walked, where they ate, and the state of the weather. What is common to all, beneath the focus on photographic activity, is a profound sense of historical and aesthetic experiences inflected through of the spatial and the visceral.   For instance, a photographic excursion of the Plymouth Photographic Society to Berry Pomeroy in Devon in June 1903, was embedded in the historical object: “the party settled down to tea within the precincts of the castle itself, the site being, it was understood, that of the old chapel.” [9]

Excursions were thus also sites of the production and re-inscription of local knowledge as it intersects with subjective vision. Many excursions involved more than simply a photographic or aesthetic education but, within a frame of rational leisure, intersected with interests in local history, folk custom or geological formation, for example. This intersection of aesthetics, the historical and local knowledge was also fostered by the journal Amateur Photographer, in its role as print community for amateur photographers. It was full of advice as to where, what and how, reproducing values on to which those of the photographic excursion mapped exactly.  For instance, it stated in 1905:

The four subjects we reproduce on this page this week are specially suggestive to beginners [pack horse bridges, and 2 ancient oaks including ‘Robin Hood’s Larder’]. They are type of subject that one may expect to meet with on a day’s ramble in the country. Possibly the host of the local hostelry, seeing the photographer, may volunteer information of some such local “link with the past.” Photographing a subject like this is an hour well spent, and prints obtained from such a negative, together with as much history of the subject as can be gleaned is of real interest.[10]

Whatever the composition of societies and clubs and the extent of their ambitions, the function of their excursions was identical.  While they focused on photographic activity as the binding concern of these groups, vitally excursions were enabled by patterns of sociability. This encompassed a range of relational interactions, but above all they were about companionship, company co-operation and patterns of association. As Manchester Amateur Photographic Society put it, “What surprises [about people] does one meet with on these rambles…! How icicles thaw and disappear.”[11] The same society describes the processes of the transmission of photographic knowledge, through watching experienced practitioners and thinking about that knowledge. It is worth quoting at length because it summarises that patterns of sociability, the reproduction of values and technical and aesthetic sensibility that I want to convey:

When a man comes home from a ramble, he counts the number of his exposures: he develops: he prints: and the number of good prints he gets, is to him, the net result of the ramble, the measure of value. But this is not an accurate stock-taking. He has not reckoned all the small, but important and valuable wrinkles he has picked up as to focussing, stopping, exposing, modification of developer, restraining, forcing, frilling, clearing, fixing, intensifying, reducing, and so on… and note  what a Wade, a Shaw, a Coulthurst or a Morley Brook does, or is going to do, under the conditions of the day…there is perfect shoal of photographic pearls to be netted, if such men as these get warm, as they always do, on their own pet methods. [12]

Key to excursions was a sense of both a collective and embodied sense of subjective vision. These values were haptically expressed through the photographic excursion and empirical observation of both visual and photographic techniques, as acts of walking and seeing were translated into photographs. Walking itself can be understood as a form of style and use, a processing of symbolic values, here specifically in relation to a subjective reproduction of photographic values experienced haptically by walking through the landscape with cameras, tripods and plates. [13] It is significant, here, in considering styles of walking and movement, that the reporting of photographic excursions often assumes the language and style of reports of hunting and shooting, for instance “clearing the wood”, “flanking the field they moved  off…..” and so forth, while the total number of plates exposed was often, like shooting, described as the “day’s bag.”

What is striking about accounts of photographic excursions is the distance covered by walking. Four or five miles, carrying photographic equipment, was not unusual – perhaps the ‘tired’ in the little poem. Throughout this process the environment was felt, heard, smelt, experienced both cognitively and symbolically as men and women moved through the landscape, dealing with the technology of photography.  Bournemouth Photographic Society’s excursion to Castle Malwood in July 1895, for instance, allowed photographers “to wander through the grounds of the retired and handsome residence. … Cameras were unpacked and several plates exposed of the half-timbered house, and a good many views of the grounds were secured.” While on a visit to Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, Manchester Amateur Photographic Society was “at liberty to ramble and photograph over the building [Haddon Hall] to our hearts content without hindrance.” [14] The intersection of sociability, movement, history and photography is fulsomely demonstrated in the description of a photographic excursion in Colchester, Essex in 1906: 

The party ascended Balkerne Hill, Dr Laver [a noted local antiquarian] explaining the various points of interest associated with the building of the old Roman Wall … the Balkan Gate -… was viewed with special interest ... [being one of] the only two Roman archways of the kind remaining in England. Having viewed the old Roman Guard room, the company proceeded to St Mary’s steps, where they inspected the remains of one of the towers built in the wall for defensive purposes by the Romans.” [15]

The weather, as hinted in the little poem with which I began, played a major role in excursions and the experience of the weather marked the experience of photography, for “with fine weather and pleasant company, good pictures are sure to follow, as in the natural order of things.” [16] Styles of walking, their experience and description – trudging, marching, ambling, wandering – were often related to the broader embodied experience of weather. [17] 

The weather of course also affected light conditions for photography, rendering the raw material of photography unpredictable. There were constant resigned complaints about wind, low cloud, rain and drizzle. Members of Putney Photographic Society, for instance, were frustrated because “There was somewhat too much wind to permit time exposures being given on the fine studies of old oak trees.”[18] But the weather also marked the embodied experience of photographing. Excursions, as Simon Naylor has discussed in relation to Cornish antiquarians at this period, were concerned with a ‘more general body of culture that required movement through the landscape and all the rigours that that involved.” [19] The corporeal experiences expressed in the accounts of excursions constitute an interweaving of weather forms and photographic experience as texturing a landscape, in the way that Ingold has described as a ‘tangle of life-lines that comprise the land”, “weaving the texture into the land”. [20] This is exemplified by a damp excursion experienced by members of Woolwich Photographic Society who are as walking in the rain in a complex chronotopic moment of photographic practice, sense of place and embodied experience:

Cameras were brought into action on entering Crown Wood, which was systematically photographed as far as the Railway bridge, when rain which had been somewhat fitful during the earlier part of the afternoon, settled into a pronounced drizzle & out a stop to further photographic work. The party then retraced its steps through the thick clayey mud which the rain had caused, to Shooters Hill where they dispersed. [21]

Perhaps the expenditure of energy required might explain the importance of food and the social bond of eating in excursions.

Lunch and afternoon tea was provided, usually at inns, arranged picnics, or even in cottages, the latter perhaps provided for pin money. Accounts of excursions often note, with near-ritualistic precision, where the group ate, and what they ate. Sometimes this experience is expressed through photographic metaphors (or lame puns): “‘manipulating our plates” and “coating of these plates, ordered with thick films.” [22] It seems that meals were sometimes substantial. A Manchester Amateur Photographic Society outing to excursion to Alderley (Cheshire) noted, in a tone the mirrors or even mimics the style of the photographic reporting of an excursion itself, that for the nine members on the excursion there were “38 plates exposed, 18 cups of tea drank, and the following trifles consumed: 36 slices of bread, 16 eggs, 2 plates of ham, and 3 plates of cake.” [23] But meals were not simply a refuelling but, like the opportunities offered by railway carriage or horse-drawn brakes used to reach the site of an excursion, a major site of conversation, sociability and conviviality which constituted the exchange of knowledge. It was a space where “the time passed quickly in discussing such interesting items as the backing of plates, exposure and development, interspersed with certain tall tales.” [24]

But excursions lived in the sociability of amateur photographers long after the event itself. The photographic products of excursions were discussed in clubrooms, honing the skills and values of amateurs in both technical and aesthetic. Indeed Birmingham kept a special album into which the most successful photographs, in technical-aesthetic terms, were placed to serve as a continuing statement of those values and to function as a collective memory of them. [25] In the winter months, when weather and lack of light mitigated against outside photographic activity, the meetings rooms were full of conversations about making photographs.

Likewise, local exhibition spaces of camera clubs were filled with the results of both individual and collective photographic excursions. Exhibition prizes were often offered for photographs taken on a particular excursion, and details of excursions were often linked to details of competitions. [26] An enormous amount of time and energy, not to mention money, was consumed by the annual exhibition, especially in the larger societies such as Birmingham or Liverpool. But these exhibitions were more than displays of photographs. [27] They had a major social role. Not only were they accompanied by dinners, teas, and rational entertainments such as concerts and lantern slide lectures. They were also presented as important civic events which were reported in detail in the local press, and often with at least a notice of the national photographic press. Indeed the larger and more prestigious or ambitious societies expected extended reviews of their work and activities in order to establish them at the forefront as generators of photographic skill, within the community of practice. [28]

Exhibitions, even more than meetings, placed photography and its communities of practice and influence at the centre of civic society. Local officials made speeches, received guests and positioned photography and photographers as significant players in the construction of local and indeed national modernities.  This integration into civic society is demonstrated too by the number of photographic societies who were involved in philanthropic works. For example, Manchester Amateur Photographic Society sent albums to hospitals to entertain the patients and Leicester Photographic Society gave lantern slide shows in the workhouse. Others were commissioned by local authorities to make photographs to document civic improvements and facilities.[29]

The sociability of amateur photographers also operated across clubs and other collectivities, forming a “brotherhood of photographers’.[30] Photographic societies and clubs were points of contact and exchange, a way of navigating scientific, aesthetic and social interests. Invitations to meetings, excursions, exhibitions, lantern slide shows and conversazione, flowed between interest groups, in a spirit of both a community of practice group and of friendly competition and rivalry. For instance, Birmingham Photographic Society reported that the “Oxford [Photographic] Society write offering their rooms & assistance to any of our members when visiting Oxford,” but also noted that they would welcome friends on their excursions providing they did not bring a camera unless “they reside outside a radius of seven miles from Stephenson Place, Birmingham.” [30] Speakers at club meetings were often drawn from the membership itself, showing and discussing their own work. Not only did these practices link photographic clubs to the performative practices of science more generally, but these events should also be understood as oral performances of technical and aesthetic competence and claims to cultural capital, both individually and collectively.

Like the excursions, meetings were focused on the exchange of information and the refinement of skills articulated through patterns of sociability. For above all amateur photography was about the sociability of knowledge and practice, about imagined communities that held values in common, and about the civic performance of those values as a claim to both cultural capital and a sense of modernity in the production and reproduction of values through an expanding technology.

 

Closing Thoughts

 The acts of photography and the experience of excursions that I have described were constituted then through embodied sets of relations between places, people and a structure of feeling through which photographic values with performed and reproduced. The reinstatement of the embodied photographer and the marking of sociability in a community of practice goes some way to reinstating the voice of the photographer. It also moves us beyond the analysis of the end product of photography – the amateur photograph – into the vast mesh of social, cultural, technical, aesthetic, scientific and, above all, phenomenological experiences through which it is constituted. In situating photographic activity, my argument reclaims the body and experience of the photographer from the disembodied sense of ‘photograph’ as the end product of embodied and social practices that have been rendered discursively and analytically invisible.

Given the extensiveness of photographic societies and their key role in reproducing photographic values and disseminating photographic knowledge - a role that extended beyond their own immediate membership into a wider perception of the medium - the work on photographic societies and clubs and their patterns of sociality and sensibility has hardly begun. Their activities are surely central to a refigured history of photography written not necessarily through the analysis of photographs themselves but rather through the activities of the huge range of people who constitute the majority practice of photography. In their different ways, they took photography seriously, gained personal satisfaction from photography, and perhaps played out their social and cultural aspirations through photography. It is a study that demands not simply judgements on their aesthetic practices, nor condemnation of their values, but an anthropological understanding of why people - ordinary amateur photographers - thought and acted as they did.

Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to Liz Hallam, Peter James, Annebella Pollen and Michael Pritchard for their conversations on these matters, and to Michael for trusting me, for months, with his precious bound volume of The Photographic Record

Footnotes

  1. 'Amateur Photographer' 34, 12 July 1901, 36. back
  2. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York, 1973, 24. back
  3. See for instance Julian Stallabrass, ‘Sixty Billion Sunsets’ in Gargantua: Manufactured Mass-Culture, London, 1996; John Taylor, A Dream of England: landscape, photography and the tourist’s imagination, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994. back
  4. See Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination 1885- 1918, Durham NC, 2012, 41-50. back
  5. ‘Rambling’, The Photographic Record, 43, April 1898, 314. back
  6. Birmingham Photographic Society was of high status and ambition. The geographical extent and complexity of their excursions reflects their relatively wealthy membership. back
  7. Leeds Photographic Society Scrapbook, West Yorkshire Archives Service, Leeds WYL20/64/7/2. back
  8. For instance, in one week Amateur Photographer listed forthcoming excursions to Oxted (Croydon Camera Club), Birkenhead Priory (Liverpool Camera Club), Miller’s Dale (Oldham), Richmond Park (Putney), Salford Priors (Birmingham Photographic Society) and Burnley (Darwen). AP, 21 June 1895, 399. back
  9. ‘Plymouth Photographic Society’s Outing’, AP, 18 June 1903, 499. back
  10. ‘Photographic Record and Survey’ column, AP, 9 May 1905, 379. back
  11. ‘Rambling’, 317. back
  12. ‘Rambling’, 316 [original emphases]. John Wade, James Shaw, Samuel Coulthurst and Thomas Morley Brook were leading members of Manchester Amateur Photographic Society. They had national photographic networks and their work was widely exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society and other major exhibitions. back
  13. Although beyond the scope of this paper, it should be noted that different camera technologies demanded different haptic engagements. For example, members of Manchester Amateur Photographic Society suspected a fellow member of using a hidden hand-held camera on an excursion because of the way he was moving. They were right. The Photographic Record,4 July 1888, 95. back
  14. [14] AP, 19 July 1895, 48; The Photographic Record, 41, October 1897, 276. For an extended discussion of photography and the haptics of walking see Elizabeth Edwards, ‘Out and About: Photography, Topography and Historical Imagination’,in Double Exposure: Memory and Photography ed. Olga Shevchencko, Transaction Press, forthcoming 2013.

  15. Essex Field Club (1906), 20, 257. Dr Laver was a noted local antiquarian. back
  16. 'The Photographic Record', 23, April 1893. back
  17. See Tim Ingold, ‘Earth, Sky, Wind, and Weather’, in Wind, life, health: and anthropological and historical perspectives, ed. Chris Low and Elisabeth Hsu, JRAI Special Issue 2, 2007, S19-38;  Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, eds. Ways of Walking: ethnography and practice on foot, Farnham, 2008. back
  18. [18] AP, 19 July 1895, 32.

  19. Simon Naylor, ‘Collecting quoits: field cultures in the history of Cornish antiquarianism’, Cultural Geographies, 10, 2003, 326. back
  20. Ingold, ‘Earth, Sky, Wind, and Weather’, S22, S33. back
  21. Woolwich Photographic Society Ledger. National Media Museum, Bradford, C6/53. back
  22. 'The Photographic Record', 5, October 1888, 121. back
  23. 'The Photographic Record', 41, October 1897, 278. back
  24. 'The Photographic Record', 27, April 1894, 307. For the importance of conversation in the making of knowledge, see James A. Secord ‘How Scientific Conversation Became Shop Talk’, in Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman , eds, Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth Century Sites and Experiences, Chicago, 2007, 23-59. back
  25. BPS Minutes of Council Meetings, 6 August 1885. Birmingham Archives MS 2507/1/2/1. back
  26. For example, Brighton Camera Club offered “2 certificates… for the best 2 prints from an excursion to Bramber”. AP, 31 May 1895, 352, and Aston Photographic Society held a competition for photographs taken on an excursion to Lichfield Cathedral. AP, 9 September 1898, 713. back
  27. The patterns and networks of judging exhibitions in the reproduction and maintenance of photographic values are also very significant in claims to photographic status and authority, but are beyond the scope of this paper. back
  28. In 1892 in Birmingham it was noted in that “several members complained that no reports of the Society had appeared in the Photographic Papers of the last several meetings”. BPS Council Minutes, 1 April 1892. Birmingham Archives BPS MS 2507/1/2/2. back
  29. H.J. Palmer, ‘Philanthropic Photography’, The Photographic Record , 9, October 1889, 203-5; ‘A Photographic Hospital Fund’, The Photographic Record , 12, July 1890, 292-3; Leicester Photographic Society, Annual Report 1901. back
  30. Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, Baltimore, 2005, 50-1. back
  31. BPS Rules Booklet. Birmingham Archives MS 2507/1/2/1; BPS Council Minutes, 16 September 1892, Birmingham Archives MS 2507/1/2/2. back

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