In conversation with the Royal Photographic Society

Jan 4, 2024 | Coach Guest

“Show Notes”

The Royal Photography Society This week Marcus is doing the show solo, without Sam, and talking to Dr Michael Pritchard from the Royal Photography Society(RPS).  

Michael’s story

Photography has been something Michael has been involved in since he was 11  years old.  He started working as a Saturday boy in a professional studio in the late 70s. The studio did a wide range of different work from weddings, studio and commercial work. He also got to work in the black and white darkroom. This really sparked Michael’s passion for photography. They allowed him to do his own work there, using the professional dark room.

Michael went to university, but would always come back in the holidays and do more work and use the dark room. He started to develop a love of the history of photography and joined the RPS as a junior member as he wanted access to the historical group within the society. He used to go to the RPS’s London location in London and meet with the historical group. Michael got a job at Christie’s as they knew of his historical knowledge of cameras and photographs. He was organising auctions at Christie’s. Michael learnt a huge amount about the history of photography through this work.  Michael still now has a small amount of historical cameras which he still uses from time to time. He worked in Christie’s for about 20 years. He then moved to do a Phd in the history of photography. While there he still did some work from Christie’s and for the British Library who had gained the Kodak library and needed help organising it.

Michael also did some teaching at DeMontford university on a module on the history of photography. Then in 2011 as he was finishing his Phd he was approached about applying for a role of the RPS as director general. Since then the role has been split in two and he then moved to the programs and education side of the role.

What does the RPS do for photographers?

The RPS is a registered charity and a membership organisation. There ultimate goal is member education, helping them become better photographers. Most members of the RPS are amateur, although some are professional. Some photographers get letters after their name showing their work has been recognised by the RPS. The RPS has a journal the has been going for over 150 years. The RPS do a lot of work with the local universities. The RPS has moved from Bath to Bristol. The Bristol location gives them a large exhibition space and an auditorium. Their exhibition changes every year, but some of the work can date back to the start of the RPS. The RPS is a community of people, about ten thousand members. Part of the RPS’s work is building that community. Michael also reminds us that photography should be fun and sometimes we can forget this.

Artificial intelligence

Marcus asked Michael about AI. ⁠The RPS has issued a statement about AI⁠. Generative AI is something the RPS is wrestling with. The RPS doesn’t see AI generated images as photography. There is also the use of AI in software. So the software in your smartphone, the software in photoshop all uses AI. The RPS is comfortable about most of that, be it autofocus, setting enhancement etc. But then this software is starting to go forward doing things like replacing the sky. That is then an issue as it is no longer really a photograph. The RPS is actively wrestling with these issues. A lot of photographers are already using AI in their practice and Michael thinks it is better to work with AI than fight against it, but within certain parameters. He sees no reason why photographers can’t embrace it into their practice, as they did with digital when that came out.

“Show Transcription”

Marcus Ahmed: Well, hello listeners, this is Marcus, Marcus from shoot to the top podcast, and we’ve got a very special show for you today. There’s no Sam, what can I say? I’m on my own, actually on location. They’ve let me out the studio, and I am at the Royal Photographic Society, the RPs based here just down the road from me in Bristol. And I’m interviewing Dr. Michael Pritchard. We’ve got a great show lined up for you. We’re going to be talking all about the RPS, and Michael’s got an amazing career involved in the history and documentation of photography. So, let’s pass over to Michael and he can tell you all about himself and the RPS.

 Michael: Hi there. So, thanks so much for inviting me to talk here. It’s always a treat to be able to talk about oneself and one’s passions. I mean, photography has been something that I’ve been involved in really since probably about eleven years old, ten years old maybe. My story is probably like a lot of your listeners. I bought an old camera at a scout jumble sale and I got interested in the history of the camera and I started collecting some cameras. Then I met a local commercial studio, a high street studio, the Greville brothers in Watford, who ran this studio, and they encouraged my interest in the history. But what that also did, because I started working for them as a Saturday boy and during school holidays. So, what that also did was started to give me a grounding in commercial professional photography. At the time, this was in the very late 70s, early 80s, and when photography was in some ways at its peak, in that sense, they ran a studio. They had the social side where they did weddings, they did studio portraiture, so people would come in for family sittings, but they also had the commercial side and they would go out on location to shoot products for people like Bosch and Sanyo and Answerphone, some of the big brands at the time. But they also did a lot of studio work using five by four cameras. So, I got a good grounding in very practical photography. And then the other side was that they also had a black and white dark room. And I learned how to print black and white and doing 100 press prints and that sort of thing. So, I was doing lots of developing and printing, hand processing, five four cut films, 120 roll film, 35 mil from all of the work that was going on, whether it’s the social side or the commercial. So, it gave me a fantastic grounding and I’m so grateful to the Greville brothers because it really sparked my passion for photography and they were incredibly generous in their time and for just letting me use the resources. So, I did some of my own studio work there. I used the dark room to do my own printing and processing. So, it’s incredibly. It’s just unbelievable, really, to have that opportunity to use a proper dark room, properly set up, and not the sort of classic cupboard under the stairs. So, I think I was probably spoilt in many respects. So that started my photographic journey. And then at various points, I went off to university, but photography was always there in the background for me. So, I’d come back during the school holidays, go back to the Grevels studio in Watford, pick up from where I left off and help out with them. But also, the interest in photographic history was developing as well. I got interested in research. So, in 1979, I think it was, I joined the RPS, the Royal Photographic Society, as a junior member. And the reason I did that was that I wanted access to the historical group. So, one of these special interest groups of the society deals with the history of photography, and I wanted to sort of meet other people and really learn from them and also look at the RPS’s collection. At that time, it was in South Ordley street in London, in the society’s house. So, I was just at the point where I could look at some of that material and particularly use the library. And then when the RPs moved from London to Bath to the octagon, I used to go down reasonably regularly to use the library and look at the museum. Some of you might remember the octagon with the history of photography, display of cameras and photographs around the sort of balcony of the octagon. But the library and the collection were really what I was interested in. And I got involved with the historical group. They pulled me onto the committee. I think I brought the average age down quite a lot. I mean, this is when I was in my teens and early twenty’s. And then after I finished university, I was recruited by Christie’s, who knew of my interest, so the auction house, and they’d known of my interest. I knew my predecessor at Christie’s. He had asked me to do a small cataloging job on a collection of early photographic lenses for him during the Easter vacation. And then he had then asked me if I wanted to join Christie’s when university finished in July. And of course, I said yes. And he then upped and left three months later. So, I was sort of thrown in at the deep end. So, I was really organizing auctions of cameras, some photography, and then related areas like stereoscopes and magic lanterns, all of those things that are around the edges of photography. So, I was organizing auctions, cataloging, meeting clients, meeting all of these collectors who had so much knowledge. And people were generous and they shared that knowledge with me. And an auction house is just one of those places that you can learn so much because you’re always handling material, there’s always material coming in, you’re talking to people, you’re looking at collections. And it gave me a great, great grounding in the history of photography and a very practical knowledge of camera I handled. I haven’t ever counted, but it must be tens and tens of thousands of Leica cameras, for example, or brass and mahogany cameras. So, you get the opportunity to look at them, play with them a bit, because you’re cataloging them. So, you need to look at them closely. You need to check things like the shutters and the condition of them, so you have to look at them very closely and you start to understand how they work. I have a small collection of cameras myself, and occasionally I put a roll of film into an old Leica or a Nikon F and just take some pictures with it, and you can’t beat it. I mean, digital, of course, is what I do now, mainly. But it’s quite nice, just from a nostalgic perspective, to go back and look at a camera and think, yeah, I’m going to put a roll of film in that today and go off and take some pictures. I don’t have access to a dark room, unfortunately, so that’s done remotely, the processing side. But actually, this is the idea of a hybrid approach where you can get the scans back from your negatives and you get the benefit of digital side and the analog. I think it’s a great combination, and realistically is very practical today for me as well. So, I was at Christie’s for what, about 20 years or so, and then I had the opportunity to go off and do a PHD in the history of photography. So, I spent three years doing that full time. During the three years, I did a bit of consultancy for Christie’s. And what else was I doing? I did some work at the British Library. So, the British Library was given the Kodak archive, and I worked on the Kodak Historical Archive for the person responsible for photography. So, I was organizing that collection, cataloging it, making it available for public access. So, this is in a way, that turned the tables, because I was now able to bring my own knowledge and experience and understanding of Kodak’s history, which I’d gathered over the last 30 years, and bring that to bear on the archive and put that back into the archives to benefit other researchers. So, I was in the bowels of the British Library for three months. It’s one of those places where you hear the tube trains rumbling above your head rather than below. So, it’s an interesting experience in there, but it was a great opportunity, and I handled some fabulous material. But the key thing is that the library saved that archive from potentially destruction. Some had already been lost at the point the library was able to intervene and was offered the archive. But it’s an incredibly important resource for photographic historians, but also historians of business, of design, of graphic design and human relation, human resources, and all of these sorts of things, because Kodak was such a big company from the 1890s, really, up to the 1980s, 2000s, that it was leading the way on some of these things, like computerization, for example. So, there’s all these different histories that archive can tell you just beyond the history of the camera or the photograph or the business of photography. And that sort of brings us up to about. I did some teaching, by the way, at De Montfort University on the MA history of photography. I was working on a module about the industry of photography that sort of built on my knowledge and experience and then in 2011, so I’d just about finished the PhD 2011, I was approached about applying for a role at the RPS that was being advertised at the time. I’d seen the job ad come up and decided maybe it wasn’t really for me, but they approached me. I did some interviews and I accepted the role of chief executive. At that time, it was called director general of the RPS. This was 2011 and I’ve been with the RPS ever since. In 2018, that role was split into two. For IPSA it became a COO role and director of programs. So, I took the director of programs, which kept me sort of hands on with student groups and engaging with people rather than perhaps the more administrative work and dealing with trustees. So, I’d had what, seven, eight years of that. And I think I moved the RPS forward during that time. But I think I felt I wanted to really stay with the education side and the program side. And I knew also that we were about to move to a new building. So, it was an opportunity to start developing the exhibitions program, the public programs that we needed to deliver within this much bigger building that we’re sitting in today. So, I opted to do that. And so, I’ve been with the RPS what, twelve years? Just over twelve years now.

Marcus: Well, I am just sitting here absolutely gob smacked. If there’s anybody who’s an expert, Michael, in photography, it’s got to be you. What a career you have had. I mean, other notes here, 1979 is when you started being involved with the RPS. And here we are in 2023. I can’t even do the math now. What’s that, 50? Is it really? No, it can’t be 840 years. 40 years, that’s incredible. Okay, that’s a fantastic. And obviously if we got time we’ll dive into your background and working at Christie’s, but maybe. Yeah, now it’s time to talk a little bit more about what the RPS does for photographers.

Michael: So, a lot of you probably know of the RPS. It’s one of those organizations that sort of is, well, we’ve been here for what, 180 od years or so. So, I think most people probably have heard those letters RPS or maybe have come across the RPS’s distinctions, the fellowship, associate licensure, or seen those letters after the names of everyone from David Bailey to the high street photographer or some of those people working within photography or in the education sector. So, I think there’s a lot of people that know of the RPS, but probably don’t know what it is and what it. So, this is perhaps the elevator pitch, I guess, to some extent. So, the RPS is a registered charity, so we have to do things for the public benefit, but we’re also a membership organization, so we obviously provide services and benefits for our members. I suppose in essence, we’re about education. Ultimately, we want to help people develop their own skills, their practical skills, their creativity, and ultimately help them produce the best photography that they can do or want to do. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s sort of fine art photography, documentary or commercial work. So, we’re developing a partnership at the moment with a professional body. So, I think we’ll see the professional side of the RPS expand and grow during 2024 and onwards. A moment, most of our members are amateur. We also have people that are photographers, of course, working commercially, but also, we have people that work with photography. So, they’re educators, they’re perhaps working in a picture library, they’re engaging with photography in some other way. So, we are this very broad organization, and I think that’s what differentiates us from, say, your local camera club or photographic society. So, a lot of our members are members of both. And each organization brings a different, it sort of helps people develop different parts of their photography, whether it’s the more social side or some of the skills. But for a lot of our members, the distinctions, those letters after their name are what people want to get. And we spend a lot of time making sure that that process is rigorous and we support people going through that journey. And there’s going to be some big changes coming along in 2024 that will further help that. And we’re doing a lot of work on our practical workshops, for example, to help them align with the distinctions process, so that we encourage and support people on their own photographic journey, whichever way that happens to take them, which has taken me completely off where I started off from now. So going back to the RPS as an organization, our strap line is about photography for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a smartphone user taking pictures on your phone, or whether you’re just someone interested in photography. And this is perhaps more relevant to most of our members. They’re taking their photography a bit more seriously. They want to develop their skills and creativity, either just for their own interest or benefit, or from a commercial perspective as well. So, we are this broad organization. We publish a journal, for example, which is the world’s oldest photography journal. We were just downstairs in our resource room a few minutes ago. And saw all these rows of volumes back to 1853. So, it’s the world’s oldest photography magazine. And again, from me as a historian, it’s an incredibly important insight into the issues that were engaging photographers in the 19th century, and some of those are still with us today. Things like copyright, for example, very much a live subject, particularly with AI coming on at the moment. But that was engaging our forebears back in the 19th century, education, how we train photographers and give them those skills. That was something that was being discussed in the RPS’s journal pages, and also that big debate about whether photography is an art or science and the relationship between the two. Now, I’d sort of like to think we’ve probably got beyond that now. I think most people would accept photography can be both. It is an art, but also there’s a scientific aspect to it as well. And I think that debate was a pretty live one for a lot of the RPS’s history. But I think now society is accepting of photography as both an art form and as something that can be used as a tool for science, for research, and for looking at the world in a very different way. So that was the journal in the building that we’re sitting in at the moment in Bristol, we do a lot of public events. We hold conferences, so we’ve just done a conference on AI, for example, but we hold other conferences. We put photographers on. We have talk series with photographers, talking about their practice and their work. We do a lot of work with the local universities, actually, the University of the west of England UE come in regularly. Boomsat Summer is a local education provider. Bath Spa, University of South Gloucestershire, University of South Wales all of the local universities tend to come in. One of the big draws for them is not simply the auditorium and hearing photographers talk, but it’s also the ability to see the exhibitions that we put on. So, when we moved into this building in 2019, it gave us two big things that we didn’t have in Bath. That was the auditorium with good audio, good projection, so we could do public events in a really good way, and the exhibition space. So, we have a very active exhibitions program, and that brings the students in, and either myself or a colleague will often end up talking to them about some of the ideas behind the exhibition. Those might be practical skills about how you put on an exhibition, particularly when those students are coming up to their end of year degree shows and projects, or it might be some of the thinking behind some of the work that they’re looking at. Why are photographs looking like they are. What are the stories that those pictures are trying to tell? For me, our international photography exhibition is a great exhibition because it’s made up of about 100 images, but the stories behind them are extremely diverse. It’s a very contemporary exhibition in that sense. So, the themes it can cover this year is everything from climate change to fine art photography, but also social issues around deprivation, relationships between single fathers, for example. So, there’s a whole range of social issues that the photography picks up, and I think it highlights, for me, the power of photography. And the other thing about the exhibition also is it’s the world’s oldest exhibition because it has its origins back to the society’s beginnings in 1853. The first edition was held in 1854. And we’re just about to open the. Let me get this right, the 165th edition. So, it changes every year, we change the selectors every year. So, it remains contemporary and always has a different look and feel because of the types of people that end up selecting. As we know, photography, it can be subjective, but people bring their own interests, influences, prejudices sometimes to that selection process. And as a result, the exhibition always remains engaging. So, when we bring those students in each year, if they’re in their third year, they’ll see a completely different edition of that exhibition to their first and second years, with different themes, different photography and different subjects that those pictures are showing to them. So, they can engage with it really well and either use that for their own inspiration, or use it as a jumping off point to help them develop their own practice as they maybe leave university and go into the commercial world. And I think that’s the power of the exhibitions and some of the things that we do here, that we’re about inspiring people, we’re about helping them create their own work in the way that they want to. And the other thing about the RPS we shouldn’t forget is it’s a community of people that we’ve got roughly about 10,000 members, mostly in the UK, but there’s a big community in Asia, for example, some of the English-speaking parts of the world. So, there’s this community of photographers and people interested in photography that can talk to each other, learn from each other, and actually just enjoy each other’s company. The social side, I think, is a really important part of photography. Photography, as we know, if you’re working as a photographer or teaching photography, it can be quite isolating in some ways. So, to be able to go to a meeting and see other people, talk to them over a drink or a coffee, whatever, it’s something that the RPS can offer. And I think that’s also where the local camera clubs and photographic societies score as well, that they hold regular meetings. So, they bring that community side to it and a social side to photography. And I think we shouldn’t forget that photography is meant to be fun as well. And I’m probably as guilty as anyone that we can sometimes take it a bit too seriously, but it should be fun. We should be enjoying our photography as well as using it either as a career or from a commercial side. We should get some pleasure from it. And I like to think that most of our members are staying as members because we’re giving them something. It gives them pleasure as well as helping them along their own journey.

Marcus:  Well, that is absolutely fantastic. I mean, there’s a couple of things that I really picked up on there. You talked about the fun of photography there. And yes, of course, that is so important and easy to forget. And also, you talked about the power of photography and the power of the image. And I think that’s another really something that I am always banging on about. I come here, I’m very lucky, I can come very easily and visit here for a cup of coffee on the weekends and look at a gallery space. But I had no idea the vast range and the benefits that the RPS has to the photographic community. Absolutely brilliant. You’ve obviously been, as a studier of photography and the history of it, we’ve seen many developments within the genre. We’ve seen, obviously from the beginning, glass negatives onto paper and then onto roll film from ten by eight sheets. We’ve seen Polaroid, we’ve seen digital cameras come along, we’ve seen lots of changes, but fundamentally photography has stayed the same. But as you’ve mentioned, we are seeing some big changes on the horizon with AI. Now, as you said, you’ve just recently had a debate here about the future of photography and AI. I would love to see. We’ve got a few minutes left on the show, about three or four minutes. I’d love for you to just tell us, if you can, what were the outcomes of that debate?

Michael: That’s a big ask. I suppose in some ways the outcome was that I think we’re still trying to understand what the impact of AI is going to be on photography. Now, for the RPS, we’ve set out a statement, which you can see on our website. So, if you go to forward Slash AI, you’ll see a statement that we published earlier this year. Now, we said at the time we issued that it was very much at a point in time that we could say certain things and that as AI evolved, that statement would be updated and would need to be revised. But I think. Where do we go from here? So, I think generative AI. Let’s break it down, shall we? I think generative AI is something that we do struggle with, and I think in terms of our own exhibitions and distinctions. Absolutely. Then generative AI is not something that at the moment we see. Firstly, we don’t see it as photography. And I think there’s obviously big issues around intellectual property rights, around how machine learning has worked and has taken people’s work and is pushing that back out. So, I suppose the starting point for us is that if you’re entering one of our exhibitions or producing work for our distinctions, then that work has to be yours. It can’t be machine generated. So that’s one end of a spectrum. If we move a little bit along that spectrum, perhaps to the midpoint, there’s this sort of intermediate point where AI is informing your photography, whether it’s through some of the enhancements that’s coming through your smartphone, for example. So, boosting contrast or sort of things like HDR. So, AI is already in your phone anyway, but it’s also in your camera, it’s in the type of software that you use for processing your work, whether that’s Photoshop, affinity, whatever, it’s already there. And again, I think for us then I think depending on what that is, parts of it, like auto focus tracking, for example, I think that’s fine. I mean, there’s clearly no issue with that because it’s a tool to help with following a subject, some of the other processing. Again, I think for the most part we’re reasonably comfortable with some of that. But if you’re talking about bringing in extending a background, well actually I’m not sure we’ve quite decided what we see about that. If it’s bringing in another sky that doesn’t, an artificial sky, that’s clearly not acceptable to us at the moment because firstly it’s not your work, but then there’s this further point where if you bring that sky in but it’s learnt from your skies, is that acceptable or not? And I think some of these nuances now we’re going to have to start grappling with, and I think next year and the year after, increasingly we’re going to have to come up with a position that’s ideally consistent, but also lets people know what our viewpoint is on these sorts of things. So, the AI conference aired some of these issues. I think it probably posed more questions than it was able to answer, but also it showed to me that photographers and I think there’s a danger sometimes of seeing AI as this tool that’s going to impact on particularly the professional, creative world of photography, adversely. But actually, a lot of photographers, a lot of creatives are already using AI in their practice. So, I don’t think we can be protectionist about it. I know some of the other bodies that we work with are concerned about the impact on their members jobs and I think it’s a legitimate concern, but I think the gene is out of the box. We have to work with it and I think we need to see the opportunities and make sure that our members and those members of professional bodies are there may be using it, and are there using it first and within certain parameters, of course, I think we need to embrace AI and if we don’t do it, one of the other creative industries will do. And I think for me, photography could legitimately embrace it. Photographers can legitimately embrace it as part of their practice in the way that they did with digital photography in the late ninety s and early 2000 s. Of course, it’s different, and it’s perhaps an even bigger jump than we saw at that point. But I think there’s opportunities, and I suppose an optimist usually, I think we need to see the opportunities it offers rather than look at the negatives, because we can’t push it back into that box. It’s here, it’s going to become an even bigger part of our lives. And certainly, within imaging and photography, it’s never going to go away now. It’s going to be with us. So, let’s take advantage of the benefits it offers. Let’s deal with things like some of the IP issues, some of the machine learning issues, deal with some of those. Some of the issues around knowing what’s real, what’s fake. Do we have to mark images that are made up of AI or not? Some of these debates are kicking off at the moment, so let’s deal with some of those issues, but let’s see it as an opportunity for creativity and see it as, again, another hybrid process that can support photography rather than see it as a threat to photography. Because I think that if we see it as a threat and try and hide it and push it away, actually that would be the death knell for photography because it’s there with us. So, we could have a whole podcast on AI. I’ve just come back from China a few weeks ago where I was talking about this, and what’s interesting is that I think in some ways our thinking within the RPS and in the UK is a little bit further along this. And we saw from some of the other people at the conference in China and I think they’re still trying to grapple with some of this. I think our thinking is a bit more advanced, but also some of these same issues that we’re experiencing here were being aired and discussed by the speakers from China, from Europe, from other parts of the world as well. So, let’s talk about it and then work out what’s the right way forward that will protect people’s skill sets and allow them to use it from a creative perspective that will enhance their photographic practice. So, let’s try and be optimistic about it.

Marcus: Thank you. And that’s a great way to end the show. Michael, thank you so much for taking your time out of your busy schedule and coming on our show. It’s been really entertaining for me, really enjoyable. I’ve learned so much more about the RPS, and I really hope our listeners out there have enjoyed the show as well.

Michael: Thank you so much for that. It’s always great to talk about the RPS and oneself, so I’ve enjoyed it and let’s try and do it again at some point.

Marcus: Thank you very much, Michael. Thank you.