Camera Clubs, Interwar Amateurs and Photography for Profit

Juliet Baillie

Shortly before the Second World War, an author and photographer, writing under the pseudonym Nettel, offered an indication of the growth in the importance of photography during the preceding decades. He argued:

Everyone today is photographically minded. We see photographs used more and more in the Press, both in the illustration of news and advertisements. Magazines are prolific users of camera studies and even the posters on our hoardings are, for the great part, the product of the camera.[1]

In this essay I examine the photographic literature that emerged during the lean years of the 1930s, which, like Nettel’s text, encouraged amateur photographers to pursue ‘Photography for Profit’. Numerous books and articles suggested that amateurs should use their skill as photographers to make their hobby pay for itself, or even to become an extra source of income. Aside from regular competitions with cash prizes, the money-making opportunities recommended for amateur photographers ranged from press photography to commercial advertising imagery, and even included picture postcards.

Amateur photographers of the period were encouraged to sell photographs but, at the same time, profitable types of photography were seen to be formally antithetical to pictorial photography, which was the mainstay of camera clubs. The rhetoric of the time suggested that skilled amateur photographers would need to approach photography in a different way for it to become profitable. As this essay demonstrates, however, the crossover from pictorial to commercial was possible and both the market, and the scope of pictorial photography were broader than traditional conceptions of the genre suggest.

Skilled amateur photographers and camera club members­—that is to say for my purposes, photographers who not only took photographs but also developed and printed their own work—historically make up a significant part of the market for more advanced photographic equipment. Julian Stallabrass’ essay ‘Sixty Billion Sunsets’ examined the relationship between just such skilled amateur photographers and the technology they used in the 1990s, noting that cameras aimed at these photographers were valued, ‘not so much for their utility but for the number and sophistication of their features,’ and that ‘the amateur is defined more by consumption than photographic activity’.[2] This is something that has also been noted by Don Slater, who examined the photographic industry during the 1980s and suggested:

Where mass photography is a conscious focus of activity—as with the amateur—the focus is on the technology, which is fetishized, not on the procedures and rhetoric of representation, which is standardized.[3]

While these quotations are interesting for a number of reasons, here I am interested in two things in particular: first, skilled—or aspirational—amateur photographers have generally been considered to be consumers first and foremost, with their consumption placed before their photographic activity and the photographs they make. Secondly, and related to this, Slater indicates that the procedures and rhetoric of representation are standardized—skilled amateur photography as practiced in camera clubs and photographic societies has broadly been considered to be traditionalised and formulaic. Here I complicate these notions by examining the opportunities that existed for amateur photographers to make their hobby pay, so that they became active producers rather than ‘mere’ consumers of the latest photographic technology.

In January 1937 the regular editorial column, ‘Topics of the Week’, which opened each issue of Amateur Photographer dealt with what was clearly an issue much debated at the time: how to define the amateur photographer in the context of photography for profit. The column notes:

The perennial question, “What constitutes an amateur photographer?” has again arisen in several quarters and many heated arguments have been held in photographic societies on this point.[4]

It is worth noting that camera clubs at that time, contrary to popular perception were very much the domain of both amateurs and professionals, and the work of both groups would have been exhibited together. To the editors of the magazine the definition of an amateur photographer, as opposed to the professional, was quite clear. Those who earned their living by photography, and had no other means of livelihood were, professionals, while

all those whose business is other than photography…who earn their living by some other vocation but take photographs as a spare time hobby can be classed as amateurs—even if they sell their prints for reproduction or gain money prizes in competitions.[5]

Thus the definition of a photographer as an amateur or a professional is a financial issue—the main source of income being the deciding factor. Later the same year a brief editorial comment in the British Journal of Photography - a magazine which catered, to a large degree, to professional photographers - warned of the ‘insidious danger’ that amateurs publishing their photographs in the press posed to the photographic profession. Because ‘the amateur is not dependent upon his reproduction fees and may even be glad to forgo them for the sake of appearance,’ publishers were particularly keen to use their photographs. This was problematic for professional photographers who relied upon paid jobs for their livelihood.[6]

Photographs by amateurs were, however, very much in demand. We might consider citizen journalism to be a feature of the age of the camera phone, but a 1936 leaflet produced by the Daily Mirror suggests otherwise.[7]

It called for photographic submissions from skilled amateur photographers for reproduction in the newspaper. The leaflet shows that amateurs were viewed as a potential source for illustrations for the press and it reveals a series of issues about amateur photography, amateur photographers, and their relationship to commercial photographic endeavours.

The lively illustration of the leaflet is indicative of the kind of photographs published by the paper: all the images used had been reproduced in the Daily Mirror during the preceding year, though it is not clear whether they were taken by amateurs.

As the leaflet was found tucked inside a pristine copy of a 1930s issue of the magazine Leica News and Technique, it seems likely that it was placed inside the magazine before distribution. This would suggest that the Daily Mirror was directly targeting the readers of the magazine, and thus users of the fast, precision, 35mm Leica cameras, at a time when press photographers in Britain generally used larger format cameras.

Secondly, the text of the leaflet suggests that the illustrations are entirely at odds with the type of photographs produced by, or perceived as being produced by, dedicated and skilled camera users. Its text explicitly emphasizes a desire for human-interest photographs. One heading reads: ‘No landscapes by request: human nature—not Dame Nature—presents drama which only the camera can record’ and below the text continues in the same vein:

The young photographer seems to be like the young painter. He revels in landscape and avoids humanity like the plague. He spends hours waiting for a certain light or cloud formation. Meanwhile, people—rich and poor—laughing, worrying, working, arguing, fighting, loving—are passing him by. This is a very great pity. The DAILY MIRROR thinks so anyway.Because these young men, with their clever technique and their wonderful little cameras, could be taking really worth while pictures of the human scene and selling them. (emphasis from the original)

The Daily Mirror called for drama, action and excitement in submitted photographs, with words like ‘joyride’, ‘disaster’ and ‘frolic’ punctuating the design of the leaflet. The tone appears to be a direct attack on the conservatism of dedicated amateurs who worked under the rubric of the aesthetic conventions of the salon scene that dominated camera club photography. The paper’s picture editors are at once criticizing and courting skilled amateur photographers, rejecting the kind of photography they are perceived as being preoccupied with, but nonetheless seeking their help in securing the right kind of photographs for the newspaper.

The images reproduced in the leaflet are full of action and adventure; they are largely short exposures capturing moments of human interest. The photograph Joy-Ride, for example, shows just such an exhilarating moment on a fair ground ride: the feeling is multiplied by the use of an extreme low viewpoint, a technique associated with the ‘new vision’ photography of the era. Next to the photograph, the text further reveals the perceived disparity between traditional conceptions of skilled amateur photography and the kind of images reproduced in the newspaper:

So many people would have taken only the clouds. Observation and quick thinking have turned what might have been yet another study for the file marked “Clouds—Unused” into a brilliant picture story, full of “atmosphere and movement.”

This refers to the production of composite photographs, merging landscape and sky because of the difference in exposure length required to capture each. I have included a pictorial photograph by T.R. Clemo,

a member of Hammersmith Hampshire House Photographic Society, as an example of the kind of use which might have been made of negatives of clouds in the skilled amateur context, and the kind of work against which the Daily Mirror railed. This softly-printed and suffusely-lit landscape is quiet and static compared to the vivacious joy-ride, and for the purposes of the picture editors of this newspaper, would have been deemed representative of ‘Dame Nature’, not ‘human nature’.

Pictorial photography in the interwar era had its roots in Pictorialism proper, best known through the Impressionist-inspired work of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and the Photo-Secession during the first decade of the twentieth century. In this context Pictorialist photographers sought to exert photography as an art form, often through the production of highly manipulated prints. By the 1930s, ‘pictorial’ photography had developed a clearer aesthetic and broader range of subject matter, though picturesque scenes and characterful portraits remained popular.

Bernard Alfieri Junior, who was a regular contributor to the magazine Amateur Photographer, published a book in 1939 titled Free-lance Photography, which provided a broad overview of the possibilities which were open to amateur photographers who wished to work freelance selling their photographs. His text tackles head-on the schism between pictorial work and the market: ‘True art in photography as represented in the leading exhibitions is hardly a commercial subject.’ He continued, ‘if a comfortable living is to be earned, this side of photography must not be the priority’.[9] Pictorial, salon photography—what he called ‘true art in photography’ should be considered merely a ‘pleasurable extra’ and the photographer’s concentration must be on the more ‘renumerative branches of photography’.[10]

The various books published on the subject of photography for profit offer tips and suggestions on how photographers might create photographs that would sell, but many of these hints and tips were antithetical to the kind of atmospheric figure studies and landscapes which are typical of the era in the work of camera club photographers.[11] The qualities deemed important to saleable photographs of course depended upon the particular market but there are some general attributes that were reiterated by numerous photographers writing on the subject. Shadows, for example, were to be kept to a minimum, particularly in commercial or advertising photography where a clear view of the products on offer was desired.[12] Additionally, in order to maintain the viewer’s interest and put the message of the photograph across clearly, the image should, ideally, be sharply focused on the main concern of the picture.[13]

Perhaps most significantly in terms of the basic qualities of the image, and potentially more compromising for the skilled amateur who made photographs for exhibitions and salons, was the fact that for reproduction purposes, images had to be made into a block for printing. Thus, William Stewart, author of Profitable Photography: A Guide for the Amateur Photographer Who Wishes to Enter the Commercial Market suggests:

the perfect photograph from a photographic point of view is not necessarily, in fact seldom is, a good photograph for block making […] a photograph intended for repro in the Press has, in the additional processes imposed on it, the further limits of the blockmaker’s craft.[14]

Most often the images were printed onto paper of lower quality than those used for fine photographic prints. Rather than utilising the subtle gradations of tone associated with pictorial photography, these images needed to show a sharper contrast between light and dark, making the print suitably bold and punchy to drawn the attention of viewers.[16] Photographers working in press photography would not necessarily have created their own prints, something wholly at odds with skilled amateur practice, which laid great importance on the ability of photographers to produce a finely crafted print.

And yet, if we look at some of the basic features which the numerous books on the subject of Photography for Profit recommended to photographers to make their photographs saleable,there was in fact some overlap with the compositional techniques that were central to pictorial photography. John Wells, author of How to Sell Photographs, instructed his readers that first and foremost photographs for sale must be of interest for their subject and not as photographs per se they were to be conceived of as illustrations. If images were to be reproduced their subject needed to be clear and immediate for the viewer, ‘so that the interest of the subject “gets across”’.[17] Busy photographs, with too much going on in the background or no clear emphasis on a particular subject were not suitable for most commercial purposes. This, as a feature, in fact coincides with compositional techniques of pictorial photography, where clarity of vision was an important to successful photographs. The pseudonymous author, Nettel, even notes this quality—having a central point of interest—as a feature that should be taken from the ‘realm of pictorialism’, where a single tree against a sky with fleecy clouds was favoured as a subject over a forest.[18]

Harry Titchener, a member of Borough Polytechnic Photographic Society during the interwar period, was an industrial, illustrative and fine art photographer. His professional status is not uncommon amongst camera club membership, as noted earlier, for clubs often boasted professionals amongst their numbers. One of his prints, Young Wrestlers,

was exhibited and reproduced in a myriad of contexts, which call into question narrow conceptions of pictorial photography: it was shown at the Royal Photographic Society, where it was one of number of prints selected to represent the work of the Borough Polytechnic Photographic Society and subsequently reproduced in The Photographic Journal (which was the mouthpiece of the RPS).[19] It was also shown in publications relating to its subject matter: in publicity material for a Jewish boys’ club in the east end of London. Later it was reproduced in a newspaper as an illustration demonstrating the importance of recreation for both mind and body.[20]

The picture strongly evokes the atmosphere of the scene, a characteristic that was deemed important in pictorial photography. The extreme highlighting of the two boys’ bodies and their clothes draws the viewer’s attention to the main action of the shot. This is a typical approach within the conventions of pictorial composition. While some of the boys who watch them fight—those to the left and centre of the composition—are also brightly lit against the darker tones of the majority of the photograph, they are set back from the main action and create a background to the scene. Again, in principle this set up is classically pictorial. Yet the protagonists are extremely close to the picture plane, and the boys behind them seem to hem them in, creating a strong illusion of shallow, claustrophobic space. This is emphasised by their darker clothing and cropped appearance. This arrangement seems to subvert typical pictorial composition and the extreme darks and lights are also uncharacteristic. Yet this photograph was shown in the context of the Royal Photographic Society, which was a central guiding institution for pictorial photography. Titchener’s photograph may not have been typical of pictorial photography but it suggests that the distance between amateur and professional work was not necessarily so great and that photographs can travel in a kind of ‘visual economy’, as Deborah Poole has suggested in her work on colonial photography, moving context and gaining different meanings along the way.[21]

Pictorial photography is often associated with a sort of decadent hobby activity—not profitable but a form of leisure—but in reality it was a broader activity, with the camera clubs that espoused it comprising amateurs and professionals. And yet, when we read the Daily Mirror’s irreverent words, at once courting and critiquing skilled amateur photographers, we must remember that the creation of a beautiful finely crafted print was the central, aspirational feature of camera clubs and skilled amateurs of the 1930s, not the fleeting frivolity of the joy-ride.


  1. Nettel, Photography for Profit, London, 1939, 7. back
  2. Julian Stallabrass, Gargantua: A Manufactured Mass Culture, London, 1996, 17. back
  3. Don Slater, ‘Marketing Mass Photography’, Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, Visual Culture: the reader, London, 1999, 289–306 (289). back
  4. ‘Topics of the Week’, Amateur Photographer, 20 January 1937, 51. back
  5. ‘Topics of the Week’, Amateur Photographer. back
  6. ‘Ex Cathedra: The Renumeration of the Amateur’ British Journal of Photography, 8 October 1937, 639-640. back
  7. ‘Special Announcements’ leaflet, Daily Mirror, 1936 back
  8. [8]Bernard Alfieri, Free-Lance Photography, London, 1939, 51

  9. Alfieri, 52. back
  10. Alfieri, 52. back
  11. John Wells, How to Sell Photographs, London, 1929; William Alexander, Money-Making Photography: Practical Modern Methods, London, 1934; William Stewart, Profitable Photography: A Guide for the Amateur Photographer Who Wishes to Enter the Commercial Market, London, 1935; Arthur Nettleton, Cash from Your Camera: Making Money from Snapshots, London, 1938. back
  12. David Charles, Commercial Photography, London, 1933, 4–5. back
  13. Stewart, 12. back
  14. Stewart, 9–10. back
  15. ‘The Freelance’, Amateur Photographer. back
  16. Stewart, 12. back
  17. Wells, 11. back
  18. Nettel, 32. back
  19. Harry Titchener, ‘The Wrestlers’, The Photographic Journal, March 1935, 151. back
  20. ‘Recreation…’, The Evening News, 20March 1929, 13. back
  21. Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity: a Visual Economy of the Andean Image World, Princeton, 1997. back
  22. The British Institute of Public Opinion, ‘The Views of a Profession’ A. Andor Kraszna-Krausz Photography as a Career, 38-64, (45, 49). back

Image references

  1. Daily Mirror Leaflet 1 ‘Special Announcements’, Daily Mirror Leaflet, c. 1936 Mirrorpix. (C) British Library Board, PP.1912 E.B.O. back
  2. Daily Mirror Leaflet 2 ‘Special Announcements’, Daily Mirror Leaflet, c. 1936 Mirrorpix. (C) British Library Board, PP.1912 E.B.O. back
  3. A February Evening T.R. Clemo, A February Evening, no date, real photo postcard author’s own back
  4. Young Wrestlers Harry Titchener ARPS, Young Wrestlers, . 1935 Tower Hamlets Local History, S/NCB/5/1/1, Harry Titchener’s Club Records 1933-1939, with permission from Cambridge and Bethnal Green Old Boys’ Club back