Capturing the Moment - by Len Shood
For those of us who had been thinking about it and preparing for it for weeks, months or even longer January 8th 2015 had at last arrived. It was not just the date of the first meeting after the Christmas break, it was the first event of our Sesquicentennial Year. Not only is our Camera Club one hundred and fifty years old, it is the only cultural society in Cheltenham with such a long continuous history and it is the sixth oldest photographic society in the UK.
The day we had been planning for had at last arrived. What a relief to know that the weather was going to be kind to us - no snow, no fog, no gales. Not only were the two principal speakers travelling from south of the Cotswolds, many of our invited guests were coming from further afield.
Sticking to our regular Thursday meeting night, this was just one hundred and fifty years and four days after the very first meeting of the Cheltenham Photographic Society, and was very different not only to that meeting, held in the private house of one of the founders, but to our regular club meetings in a church hall. Tonight we were in a state-of- the-art theatre with superb sound and lighting, comfortable tiered seats, a very large projection screen and bar facilities.
Without any introduction the house lights dimmed to to total darkness and the screen burst into life with Big Ben striking midnight and heralding the New Year with fireworks. 2015 had begun and then in a fast moving creative AV we were swept back 150 years to the beginning of the Club. Alternating images showed us world events, local events and photographic gear of each corresponding era to an ever changing sound track as we were transported through a century and a half. As it came to its climax and rapturous applause a Victorian figure entered the spotlit stage.
He told us that he was Dr Edward T. Wilson, joint founder of the club and fascinated the audience with an account of his many contributions to our town. We are fortunate in that our illustrious forbear not only began our club, to which he remained loyal throughout his life, but established a fever hospital in the town, brought clean drinking water to the citizens, founded a natural history society and later the Museum, and was the father of the distinguished Antarctic explorer Dr Edward A. Wilson, whose death with Scott the town recognised with a statue in 1914.
He also described his early photographic achievements leading very neatly to our first lecturer of the evening, Roger Watson, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum at Laycock Abbey, the family home of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography's two inventors, the other being the Frenchman Louis Daguerre. Entitled Capturing the Light the parallel stories of their pioneering work is fascinating because of their completely different characters, and their approaches to their project. Can it really be said photography had two inventors? asked Roger. Yes, he said, it often happens and cited numerous other inventions. He concluded his talk just as photography had been announced in January 1839 by Daguerre in Paris and by Talbot in London. It would be good to listen to Roger Watson again, and hear the next sequence in this fascinating tale.
During the interval the audience was invited to view the exhibits in the adjacent gallery. The principal award — the best in show — at the club's annual exhibition is the Lloyd and Gregory Cup and as many winning prints as could be resourced from the last few decades were shown along with a few other category winners. Looking at the display it was interesting to see the variety of subjects, the different treatments and the fact that so many different members had achieved this ultimate accolade. Many of course were from pre-Photoshop days. Speaking to a few members, they all had their own choice of 'best of best' and none of them agreed, other than to say that extensive use of Photoshop is a useful tool, but no guarantee to success.
Back in the auditorium 'Dr Wilson' announced The Victorian Peerless Magic Lantern Show. We had already seen the lantern itself in the rear stalls, a magnificent piece of Victorian equipment fabricated in shiny mahogany and gleaming brass, this was a double slide version, effectively two projectors, one above the other. Originally illuminated by gas or oil, it has been converted to electricity enabling each part's illumination to be brightened or darkened by a dimmer, rather easier for the operator than in the days of the afore mentioned fuels.
'Professor' Mervyn Heard presents the show as a one man band and must often wish he had more hands. In the days before cinema the only action on a screen was via the magic lantern and the Victorians were certainly inventive: some slides had secondary images that revolved within the mount, others had a secondary image that could be slid into the gate thus being superimposed over the first. Combined with a second projector (integral in this case) additional moving images could be added. Mervyn demonstrated an assortment of original slides, many from before the days of photography when all the images were hand painted. Once photography was available the selection of subjects increased to include views of far away lands, and picture stories rather like comic strips, posed by 'actors', often in front of badly painted backgrounds.
Apart from having to be ambidextrous, Mervyn continued his commentary fluently throughout with a burst of singing at one point, an epic performance, which was much enjoyed by his twenty-first century audience.
He finished with a classic favourite, a slide of a man snoring; as he snores he opens his mouth and a rat runs up his body into the open orifice. The Victorians may not have experienced the age of electronics but they certainly lived in and enjoyed to the full the age of mechanical invention.
The evening concluded with the Treasurer and a Trustee of the Royal Photographic Society, which is twelve years older than us, Geoff Blackwell, thanking the Club for putting on such an entertaining evening, congratulating us on achieving 150 years and declaring our sesquicentennial year well and truly started!
The Club can claim a triumphant commencement to its sesquicentennial year, but this successful start did not happen by chance. We had a team of enthusiasts, each responsible for different items. Martin Fry, one of our longest serving members and an acknowledged expert in the world of AV (as well as other areas of photography) made the opening sequence to set the scene, and was also the overall leader of the team. Others were responsible for overseeing the technicalities of the proceedings, hanging the exhibition, publicising the event, organising the team of stewards and managing ticketing, issuing invitations to VIPs, catering for all the helpers.
Others in turn assisted in these various tasks. Parallel to the preparation for the evening, another member, Sandie Prowse had been working on one of our major efforts of the year, the publication of a book to be launched on the evening. With chapters written by several members, the book tells the story of photography in Cheltenham from its first professional studio (less than six months after the first in Europe, in London, through the formation of the Camera Club to the present day university courses. Needless to say sales on the evening were brisk.