Photographic Society of Madras
The oldest existing photography society in India, the Photographic Society of Madras was set up in the Madras Presidency (now Chennai) in 1857 by Alexander Hunter and Walter Elliot to serve as a space where amateur photographers could share ideas and experiences. Elliot was the Society’s first president, and its most prominent patrons included Charlotte Canning, and various Governors of the Madras Presidency. Members tended to have a background in medicine – as a knowledge of chemistry was an advantage in photographic processes of the time – however, the Society generally also consisted of high-ranking British officers and civilians who had the time to travel and practise a new skill. Most members favoured photographing India’s medieval and ancient architecture, ruins and landscapes. In 1857, one of the most notable members of the Society, Linnaeus Tripe, was employed as the Official Photographer of the Madras government to create visual records of the areas around Madras as a mapping exercise that was later compiled as albums and published on behalf of the Society.
The Society held its monthly meetings and annual exhibitions at the Government College of Fine Arts (then the Madras School of Art), and organised talks and discussions on photography techniques. The Society’s annual National Salons were large competitive exhibitions that featured work from photographs across the world, especially of the landscape, architecture and people of India. The first competitive National Salon was held in 1858, followed by the Society’s first international exhibition in December 1860; this exhibition included 1,732 photographs, primarily contributions from British officers from across China, Australia and Egypt.
Unlike other photographic societies in India at the time, the Photographic Society of Madras had no journal of its own; instead, its notes and events until 1861 were recorded in the quarterly Madras Journal of Literature and Science, managed by the Madras Literature and Scientific Society, and are currently available in their library. Much of the lectures and discussions in the Society meetings were focused on adapting photographic processes developed in Europe to the hot and humid climate of India. This was especially necessary when handling delicate and expensive chemical solutions used in the wet collodion process that was popular among the Society’s members at the time. The Society also drafted guidelines for new members and photographers arriving in India, highlighting the possible effects of the weather on their equipment.
Activity in the Society eventually dwindled, effectively halting by the 1880s, with a majority of the members retiring and returning to Britain. It was revived in the mid-1880s by some photography enthusiasts, but declined further with the onset of the First World War. In 1932, the Society was revived by photography enthusiast A Arunachalam under the patronage of Howard Oakley and renamed the Madras Amateur Photographic Society. However, the Society returned to its former name after Independence.
In 2014, the Society organised its first PSM International Digital photography exhibition under then-president of the society, KO Isaac. The Society has affiliations with organisations such as the Royal Photographic Society, London. Today, it has a country-wide membership, includes hobbyists as well as award-winning professionals and organises events such as photo walks and tours, workshops and classes.
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