Photographs Exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society 1870-1915

Lead Research Organisation: De Montfort University
Department Name: School of Media and Communication


Photographic history has only recently developed as a formal academic discipline in the UK, its progress restrained by lack of major reference works and standard texts of the type that underpin art history and other scholarly subjects. The most comprehensive records of photographic exhibitions for the latter part of the 19th century are those of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, London, which, after 1870, are published in full in The Photographic Journal. Although other photographic societies elsewhere in Britain flourished and held their own annual exhibitions, sadly, exhibition catalogues from these societies seem not to have survived. In contrast, the 44 extant catalogues of the Photographic Society of Great Britain contain around 30,000 individual records, including, for the first time, accompanying line or half tone illustrations of some of the photographs exhibited. They offer a unique insight into the personalities, products, techniques, tastes and artistic and commercial trends of this period, as well as the fortunes of the Royal Photographic Society itself. After 1870 the Photographic Society of Great Britain was recognised as the leading photographic society, attracting a wide constituency of photographers, from Britain, Europe and America. Many individuals launched their photographic career by exhibiting at the Royal Photographic Society and a significant number went on to become leading practitioners of their day.
Drawing on the resources of Birmingham City Library, De Montfort University will make these records available online in a browsable and searchable database, supplementing them with additional images and commentaries from the contemporary Journal Photograms of the Year to further aid identification and understanding of the items exhibited.
When viewed together with the previously AHRC funded Photographs Exhibited in Britain 1839-1865 (, Photographs Exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society 1870-1915 will create a unique online resource spanning the entire 19th century history of photography. It will allow scholars for the first time to conduct searches across a broad sweep of historical data, to reveal hitherto hidden practices, groupings, developments in techniques, changes in fashion and the dissemination of ideas. It will also aid the identification and attribution of photographs from this period. The synergistic potential of this combined resource will be further enhanced by the development of a search facility that will allow combined search of these two databases and others, despite their differences, and return integrated sets of research results that can be collectively filtered and organised.


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Brown S (2008) A catalogue of problems: database design issues in the context of historical data series in Proceedings of Digital Heritage in the New Knowledge Environment: shared spaces and open paths to cultural content.

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Stephen Brown (Author) (2009) Paper prototypes and beyond. in Journal of Visible Language ISSN 0022-2224

Description The project developed an online database of photographic exhibits extracted from the catalogues of the annual exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society 1870-1915. During this period the RPS was the pre-eminent photographic society in the world and many key practitioners and companies participated in these exhibitions, along with thousands of other lesser or unknown figures, there are a great number of competing photographic processes and an embryonic industry. The searchable online database makes it possible for the first time to query the exhibitions to answer questions such as "how popular was process X?", "when did it give way to others?", "Did person Y exhibit? , Did they win medals?, How much did their pictures sell for?, Where did they live?" "When did company Z first feature in the exhibitions and what was there product range?"
Exploitation Route The erps online database is used extensively by researchers and students. While many have commended it for its usefulness, a common criticism is that most of the pictures are missing. Only 1040 exhibit records have accompanying images, many of which are merely artists' sketches of the originals. At the time of the exhibitions, mechanical reproduction of photographic images was technically difficult and costly and anyway unnecessary since the pictures themselves were on view on the gallery walls. Since GLAMs collection objects are increasingly available online it should be possible to search them to locate the "missing images". However the task of searching tens of thousands of records manually is impracticable. The erps project has led directly to the FuzzyPhoto project (AH/J004367/1) that aims to answer the question:
"Can computational methods help researchers to match surviving historical photographs in GLAMs collections with records of exhibits in the ERPS exhibition database"
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The primary deliverable of the project was an online searchable database of circa 40,000 historical photographic objects exhibited at what was then the pre-eminent photographic society in the world and the vehicle through which many of the leading practitioners and companies established their reputation. The database is in continuous use by scholars, researchers and students globally as well as general public searches for particular photographs and individuals for genealogical and local history purposes.
First Year Of Impact 2008
Sector Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description AHRC FuzzyPhoto. AHRC Research Grant AH/J004367/1 £390,280
Amount £390,280 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/J004367/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2012 
End 10/2014
Title Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society, 1870-1915 
Description This is a complete record of the annual exhibition catalogues of the Royal Photographic Society 1870-1915, stored as mySQL data files and high resolution images of the cataloge pages themselves, supplemented with images scanned from the contemporary journal 'Photograms of the Year'. The database sits behind a Web site that offers browsing of the catalogue data, images and page scans, simple quick searches by key word and advanced boolean based searching. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2008 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The site is very popular with researchers. However a frequent query is "where are the pictures", because only 3% of the exhibits are illustrated. this query prompted the successful FuzzyPhoto project which set out to find the missing images among museum collections, using computational search methods. FuzzyPhoto has not found around 50% of the missing images. 
Description ERPS 
Organisation Library of Birmingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution DMU conceived the original project idea of scanning the exhibition ctalogue records of the Royal Photographic Society in order to make them available online and to supplement these catalogues with additional information and images from the contemporary journal "Photograms of the year". DMU also carried out scanning work, built the database of the catalogue records, created the Web front end to provide user access and hosts the finished product.
Collaborator Contribution Birmingham Lirary provided access to their research journal collections and to a document scanner and hosted a DMU research assistant for several months while essential scanning of relvant journals was completed successfully.
Impact Research publications reported elsewhere. Further research collaboration (FuzzyPhoto project).
Start Year 2007