Reconsidering Amateur Photography

Who were the amateur photographers?

Michael Pritchard

Introduction

The debate over what defines an amateur photographer is still with us. Today the question is usually framed around determining who is eligible to enter a photographic competition. In the nineteenth century the question was more important as it could define an individual’s suitability for membership of a photographic society, exhibition entry, and it also defined one’s status within photography more widely.

The purpose of this essay which examines British photography between 1839 and 1914 is to suggest who the amateur photographer was and to discuss how the definition of amateur changed over the period. It also seeks to estimate how numerous amateur photographers were and how their numbers changed through the period.  In particular it assesses the impact of new technology from the 1880s and how it changed the dynamics of photography and the impact this had on the amateur photographer.  The essay concludes by redefining the notion of the amateur from the 1890s. 

Who were the amateurs?

The distinction between the commercial portrait photographer and the amateur was one that preoccupied the photographic press and was the subject of frequent debate within photographic societies from the 1850s.[2] In practical terms the equipment and materials used by the amateur was little different from that used by commercial photographers up to the 1870s irrespective of whether a photograph was being made inside a studio or outside.  The definition of a commercial photographer as one who made his livelihood by photography was reasonably clear, but the definition of an amateur was not simply the opposite of this. There were gradations of earnings from photography that complicated matters. For some traditionalists simply selling a few prints justified the removal of amateur status. There were photographers who straddled the boundaries of such a rigid definition. Many were artists using photography as a medium to support their work and others, such as Roger Fenton, started as an amateur but then undertook paid work for the British Museum and sought to commercialise his Crimean photographs.

Some commentators have termed the non-commercial photographer the ‘gentleman-amateur’ who comprised individuals from the upper middle classes with the resources to practice photography as a leisure pursuit.[3] An analysis of the membership of the Photographic Society of London in its early years from 1853 confirms this in broad terms although it had started to change with ten years.[4] They were frequently members of a photographic society interested in photography for its artistic, scientific or recording possibilities.

The amateur played an important role in photography’s first important period up to the 1880s and this was widely acknowledged at the time. Nicol correctly opined that progress in the technical development of photography had largely been the result of amateur experimentation with commercial photographers unable to devote the time or lacking the interest to advance their trade. This role had been taken up with vigour from the late 1840s as photographers looked for more workable alternatives to the daguerreotype. There were, of course, notable exceptions of which Antoine Claudet stands as the best exemplar.

In Britain the daguerreotype had essentially been a process operated by commercial photographers and the calotype, which had few commercial operators, was dominated by amateurs. The introduction of collodion processes changed the dynamic in which the amateur operated. The advantages of collodion in terms of its sensitivity and results, if not with its operation, meant that both commercial and amateur photographers turned to it, although the calotype continued to find favour amongst some amateurs into the 1860s. Thomas Sutton saw the introduction of the collodion process as a ‘misfortune’ making everything ‘too easy, too quick, and consequently too harum-scarum’. From the mid-1850s there was little to distinguish the commercial photographer from the amateur from an operational perspective.

From the 1870s the situation gradually reversed so that it was no longer the amateur but commercial firms that began to make technical improvements to a medium that was increasingly rooted in science and theory rather than empiricism. Sutton in 1860, looking back to 1851, described the approach of the amateur to photography as:

rational enthusiasts, and not men to take up a hobby in a hurry and give it up in a pet. The amateur of 1851 was a man who first considered the cost of the apparatus and the artistic value of the results, and who after having weighed the matter in his mind and determined to become a [amateur] photographer, worked steadily at it.[5]

Numbers of amateurs

The number of amateurs is difficult to quantify. In a telling piece published in 1881 John Nicol lamented the decline in the number of amateurs compared with the ‘thousands’ that had been excited by the calotype, daguerreotype and introduction of collodion.[6] He provided no evidence for this and it seems unrealistically high for a twelve year period. Taylor, for example, has identified only 500 active calotypists in the period between 1841 and 1860. Evidence from photographic society membership lists, which include commercial photographers, is patchy. The Photographic Society, based in London, had the largest membership by far of any society, with approximate 360 members by mid-1854.[7] All other British photographic societies had memberships numbered in tens rather than hundreds with, for example, Blackheath Photographic Society, having 23 members in 1857. The evidence suggests that there were far fewer than 1000 amateur photographers in Britain at any one time.

Although there was growth in the number of amateur photographers from the early 1850s this number had started to decline by the 1870s.[8] There were no obvious reasons for this but the number of commercial photographers had also reached a plateau by the late 1860s. The British Journal of Photography suggested that the fall in amateur numbers was because of the need for them to keep buying more expensive equipment each year.[9] What is more likely is that those amateurs wanting to take up photography had largely done so and that there was a natural turnover of those leaving without sufficient new entrants to maintain numbers. Photography had not progressed significantly in its practice since the mid-1850s and this was acting as a barrier.

By 1896 the Royal Photographic Society, as the Photographic Society had become, had increased its membership to 560, although the membership of the larger regional societies had grown more strongly. Until the 1880s most provincial societies still had memberships below 100 with most with most numbering memberships of the low tens. The total number of societies and clubs also expanded quickly in urban centres from the 1890s.  By 1914 there were some 350 photographic clubs and societies, not including postal groups, with an estimated combined membership of between 10,000 and 20,000 members.[10]

The view that amateurs needed to prepare their own materials began to break down from the 1870s. The traditional definition of an amateur as someone able to prepare, coat and process his own materials was increasingly seen as anachronistic although there were diehards that refused to accept any change. A new debate opened up centring around whether the photographic process was simply a means to make photographs or whether, as one commentator suggested ‘the making of collodion, nitrate of silver, albumenised paper, chloride of gold, and cyanide of potassium should be a part of the curriculum in every young photographer’s education’.[11]

This discussion continued but was overtaken by the widespread adoption of dry plates from the early 1880s. They offered greater convenience and sensitivity and Nicol, who had lamented the decline of amateurs, rightly foresaw that this would act to increase their numbers.[12] Throughout the 1880s the number of amateurs was perceived to be increasing and by 1886 the BJP reported that: ‘the number of amateurs now far exceeds that of any period in the history of photography’.[13] Changes in photographic technology and the availability of commercially manufactured materials contributed to an increase in amateurs and underpinned a wider interest in photography as a leisure pursuit for the expanding middle classes.

The general perception of what defined an amateur photographer also shifted. It moved away from one who practiced photography and had an understanding and practical knowledge of all aspects of its operation to one that simply made photographs. The amateur did not need to undertake all aspects of the process so could, for example, buy ready prepared plates.[14] The advantages of dry plates and their ease of use was, in part, responsible for the increase in the number of amateur photographers but a few commentators such as Alex Lamson in 1890 argued: ‘photographers who merely “press the button” and leave some one else to “do the rest” are really not entitled to the honourable name’.[15]

For most the debate was settled. Amateur photography was about making a photographic print and the need to make and even develop one’s own plates was no longer a pre-requisite to being an amateur photographer.  Although it was never explicitly stated this also suggested that there was a class of photographer with no interest in any aspect of photography other than simply taking photographs.

Two types of amateur

The distinction between the amateur and professional photographer was reasonably well defined by the 1890s although there remained issues over amateurs charging for prints which occasionally clouded the issue for a few. By the mid-1890s it was apparent that there was a new class of amateur photographer emerging.

The photographic press rarely differentiated between the two but, on one side, there was the amateur for which photography was a leisure pursuit with the production of a photographic print a key part of this together with membership of a camera club where prints could be exhibited or critiqued with fellow enthusiasts.  The new amateur was those that simply wanted to press a button to record people and places and have others make their prints. Ownership of a camera was simply a means to an end.

By the mid-1890s the need for any technical knowledge of photography was no longer a requirement to make photographs. All the equipment, materials and services required for producing a print were available to purchase at a cost that was affordable by many.  The photographic press still referred to amateurs as taking ‘snapshot’ photographs when it was increasingly the case that these were being taken by amateurs with little interest in photography other than for producing a photograph for personal pleasure. ‘Snapshotter’ was a more appropriate term to apply to this new class of photographer and by 1897 the BJP had used the word to describe ‘an everyday photographer’.

The snapshotter was supported by improvements in photographic sensitised materials which, in turn, aided new, smaller and portable cameras. The original Kodak camera of 1888 may have been prescient but its real impact was very limited with fewer than c.10,000 being sold worldwide. It was the Pocket Kodak camera of 1895 and the Brownie camera of 1900 that had far more impact. Both were more modestly priced and the cartridge system of changing film helped their use. Furthermore the required infrastructure to provide the developing and printing services the snapshotter needed were in place.

For the snapshotter the specialist photographic retailer was less important than the chemist and stationer. W H Smith began stocking dry plates at its railway bookstalls from 1896 which ‘many amateur photographers and others will much appreciate’.[16] The chemist and druggist had the greatest impact. Boots the Chemist and Taylor’s Drug Company, two of the largest multiple chemist chains, entered photographic retailing market from the mid-1890s. The supply of amateurs and, more importantly, the snapshotter was seen as attractive and these were individuals that would already be visiting the premises. Chemists could see a profitable and complimentary side line to their own business and one writer stated that chemists were best suited to starting such a business.[17] The Pharmaceutical Journal published a photographic supplement in 1898 to encourage chemists to stock photographic goods and in the same year the Chemist and Druggist claimed that ‘at least two thirds of the photographic trade is already in the hand of chemists’. By 1900 photography was making up around 16 per cent of the total income of independent chemists.[18]

The photographic press was dismissive of their involvement commenting: ‘who but a schoolboy or the veriest tyro, would think of going to the druggist for photographic apparatus or material?’[19] The BJP’s assertion that chemists were dealing with the lower end of the trade, the casual amateur and the snapshotter, was correct but by the late 1890s this was close to representing the greater part of the total photographic business. By 1905 some 10 per cent of the population of Britain, around 4 million people, were engaged in making photographs with only a fraction of these being commercial photographers or amateurs.[20] By 1914 the antipathy that the photographic press previously had towards chemists had largely dissipated with the recognition that specialist photographic retailers were better placed to cater to the hobbyists and camera club members leaving the chemists to service new amateurs and the snapshotter.

Conclusion

This essay started by asking three questions: who were the amateurs? How many of them were there? And how did this change between 1839 and 1914? Although there is a paucity of data it is possible draw some tentative conclusions based on evidence in the journals and from the membership of photographic societies.

At the start of the period the ‘amateur’ was certainly the gentleman-amateur able to afford to practice photography and this remained the case until the 1870s/1880s when changing photographic technologies and new methods of manufacturing and retailing, underpinned by wider changes in society, encouraged the middle classes and, later, the aspirational working classes to turn to photography as a leisure pursuit.  The amateur also gets sub-divided from the mid-1890s between those that were interested in photography as a hobby and those, termed as ‘snapshotters’ that just used photography to secure pictures.

The numbers are, again, difficult to determine and this essay is probably the first attempt to quantify their numbers.  The relative positions including commercial photographers are shown in figure 1.The number of amateurs between, say, 1850 and 1870 grew from perhaps 1000 to no more than 2500, and from then rose steadily to approximately 15,000 by 1914. From a position in 1870 of no snapshotters these grew from the late 1880s to around 4 million by 1904 and steadily on from this.[21] These trends continued through the twentieth century until once again changing photographic technology from the 1980s changes these respective positions.

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Footnotes

  1. Michael Pritchard can be contacted by email: michael@mpritchard.com This essay is in part based on work from his PhD which will be published in a revised form.   back
  2. The term commercial portrait photographer is used rather than the less precise ‘professional’ photographer. back
  3. See: Roger Taylor, Impressed by Light. British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860, London, 2007. back
  4. Based on a sample analysis of the approximately 2474 members of the Society between 1853 and 1900 recorded in a database compiled by the author. back
  5. [5] Photographic Notes, 106:5,1 September 1860, 230.

  6. John Nicol, ‘Concerning amateurs’, British Journal of Photography, 1081:28, 21 January 1881, 32. back
  7. This includes amateurs, commercial photographers and overseas members. back
  8. The evidence for this is both anecdotal from the photographic press and from the membership numbers of some photographic societies. back
  9. ‘Seasonal’ British Journal of Photography, 765:22, 1 January 1875, 3-4.  back
  10. British Journal Photographic Almanac 1915, 487-510.  The estimate is by the author. back
  11. ‘Should photographers prepare their own materials?’, British Journal of Photography, 839: 23, 2 June 1876, 254-256. back
  12. John Nicol, ‘Concerning amateurs’, British Journal of Photography, 1081:28, 21 January 1881, 32. back
  13. [13] British Journal of Photography, 1391:33, 31 December 1886, 823.

  14. H. Y. E. Cosworth, ‘What is an Amateur?’, British Journal of Photography, 1393:34, 14 January 1887, 21. back
  15. Alex Lamson, ‘Press the Button’, British Journal of Photography, 1581:37, 22 August 1890, 537-538. back
  16. ‘News and Notes’, British Journal of Photography, 1882:43, 29 May 1896, 348. back
  17. ‘How to start a photo-material business’, The Photogram, 53:5, May 1898, 150-152. back
  18. Quoted in Stuart Anderson and Virginia Berridge, ‘The role of the community pharmacist in health and welfare, 1911-1986’ in Joanna Bornat et.al. Oral history, health and welfare, London, 2000, 48-74. back
  19. ‘The projected Poisons Act’, British Journal of Photography, 1979:45, 8 April 1898, 211-212. back
  20. Quoted in Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918, Durham and London, 5. back
  21. These numbers are based on wider work carried out for my PhD and further refined for this essay. They have not previously been published. back

Image references

  1. Estimated relative growth of commercial and amateur photographers and snapshotters, 1851-1914. back
Reconsidering Amateur Photography

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