BETWEEN THE WARS (1918-1939)
The period 1918 to 1939 was one of mixed fortunes for the Country as a whole, punctuated firstly by some years of re-formation, then the slump of 1928, and finally a period of economic stringency in the 1930s. Notwithstanding these conditions BPA maintained a strong and enthusiastic membership throughout the whole of this period and quickly resumed its full activities after the cessation of hostilities in 1918. So rapidly in fact did the interest in amateur photography develop after the war that by 1919 the BPA membership had risen to around the hundred mark. The many newcomers to the club were well looked after by the older members who were quick to introduce novice classes in the basics of photography.
In parallel with the mounting enthusiasm among individual club members was the movement among photographic societies to unite territorially and, over a period of years, a number of regional organisations or unions came into being, each one serving the interests of those societies or clubs falling within its jurisdiction. I n the early 1900s the BPA became federated with the Lancashire and Cheshire Photographic Union, the regional body covering the North West of England. Eventually, ten such photographic unions were formed covering the whole of Great Britain.
Close and harmonious relations were soon to develop between the L&CPU and the BPA, and a pattern became established whereby visiting judges and lecturers were freely exchanged between the two bodies. Additionally, the BPA acted from time to time as hosts to the L&CPU in connection with their annual general meetings, seminars, and other functions. Evidence of the esteem in which the BPA was held by the L&CPU is revealed in the choice in later years of BPA members to serve as their President, namely, Norman Crawshaw in 1953, Tom Grenfell in 1962, Sylvia Marsden in 1965, and Jack Marsden in 1972. It need hardly be said that these four members had fully earned the honour bestowed on them by a spell of committee and other service with the L&CPU beforehand.
By 1930, after the formation of the ten regional unions had been completed, it was recognised that a single centralised controlling body was needed, and in that year such a headquarters organisation was created, to be known as the Photographic Alliance. The task of the latter was to co-ordinate and oversee the operations of the regions on a nationwide basis. Having proved its effectiveness over the years this chain of responsibility has continued unchanged up to the present day. It is gratifying to know that the BPA has been, and continues to be, an important link in this chain.
It is perhaps of interest to note that in the same year that BPA became federated with the L&CPU it sought, and was granted, affiliation to the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. This link has benefitted the club through the years, but more particularly it has helped its members, many of whom by the excellence of their work have qualified for the Iicentiateship, associateship, or fellowship of the Society. To acquire membership of the RPS in this way, and to be honoured by the appropriate qualifying letters after one’s name, is surely the natural ambition of most keen club members. The BPA members have been no exception in these ambitions, and their success rate over the years is something of which the Association can well be proud.
By 1922 the club premises, still at the YMCA, Grange Road, had become fully operational, possessing a well equipped darkroom fitted with lockers, shelves, sinks, dishes, lantern slide copying camera and an enlarging’ lantern. Lectures and demonstrations were a regular Wednesday evening feature from October to April, and excursions took place every Saturday during the summer months. Annual subscriptions at that time were: YMCA members 7s/6d, non-Y.M.C.A. members 10s/6d, Lady Associates 5s/-. In 1927 the subscription was raised to 15s/- and remained so until 1939.
The fact that the club had equipped itself with very adequate processing facilities was ample indication of the members’ keenness to become proficient on the practical side of their hobby. Indeed, to satisfy the members’ desire for information and knowledge, the club devoted a high proportion of its time to practical demonstrations and experiments of all kinds. Unlike the present day the photographer of sixty years ago was obliged to do everything the hard way, and success was only achieved by those possessing a fair knowledge of chemicals, apparatus and methods. An excerpt from the local press at that time describing a lecture by a BPA member, Jack Trace, ARPS, FRSA, illustrates this point and is reproduced below:-
“On Wednesday evening, Mr. Trace, of Hamilton Square, generously gave the members of the Birkenhead Photographic Association a demonstration on the subject of negative retouching and working up photographs in monochrome. Mr. Trace, as the result of his wide experience, is a master of the art and is of the opinion that a useful measure of success can be achieved by any amateur photographer who has sufficient interest in his hobby to obtain the necessary apparatus, namely: the retouching desk -a simple affair which anyone can make from a soap box: the medium – a small bottle of photographic dope which normally will last a lifetime: and the tools – pencil, knife, brush, and oil colour. Mr. Trace showed the actual materials he uses in practice, with particular reference to portraiture, by demonstration on both plates and paper.
The ‘pinhole’ was soon eliminated, ‘bags’ under the eyes were softened, wrinkles disappeared as if by magic, and deformities were cured with a dexterity beyond even the powers of the common surgeon. Faces with no distinctive features owe their beauty to the complexion, but will the camera see this? That the camera cannot lie is a long-exploded fallacy. The rosy spot on the cheek may be shown on the photograph as a dark blob – the beautiful freshness is not revealed – but a little blacklead judiciously applied will soon right this, and a touch with the point of the knife will give a sparkle to the eye.”
Other demonstrations which the club included in its fixture lists covered dry mounting, working up negatives and prints, lantern slide making, photographing flowers by artificial light, gaslight printing, the bromoil process, autochromes, slide binding, and more besides. But it was not just in arranging this wide variety of practical demonstrations in the 1920s and 30s that the BPA showed its versatility, it was in the exhibition field as well, as the catalogue for the club’s first Open Exhibition in 1922 reveals. Here the entry list comprised 131 entries in the Open Class and 121 entries in the Members’ classes, but what is surprising is the variety of categories embraced by the latter, ten in all, thus emphasising the wide-ranging scope of the members’ work.
A feature of these early BPA exhibitions was that in the Open Class each entry was offered for sale at a price ranging from about 5s/- to three guineas, and for the whole period from 1922 to 1938 these prices never varied. Those of us accustomed to the raging inflation of recent years will find this difficult to comprehend, but the fact is there was no inflation between 1922 and 1938; indeed, it might be recalled that the cost of living actually dropped very slightly over the period.
The Open Exhibition, started in 1922, continued in similar form each year until 1938 after which, due to the ever-increasing number of overseas entries, the title was changed to the “Annual International Exhibition”. This, in turn, gave way to the “International Colour Salon” in 1972, but more of the latter in Chapter Three.
As far as is known, the BPA did not possess any challenge trophies during the period 1918-39 other than the J.T. Peters Memorial Trophy previously referred to. Other awards in the Annual Exhibition included the club plaque for the best print overall, and medals and certificates to place winners. As for club competitions, not many of these appear to have been held during the winter sessions; for the few that were, cash prizes usually went to the winners as their reward. During the period we are speaking of the more competitive members of the BPA found an outlet for their energies by competing in outside contests organised by the various photographic magazines, the L&CPU and other societies. In addition, members’ competitiveness within the club was kept alive by at least one print portfolio being constantly in circulation.
We have talked about the club plaque, and some details of this should be added. Presented in 1922 by J .H. Williams, President in that year (and later the Mayor of Bebington), the plaque comprised a handsome embossed silver-oxidised bronze plate mounted on a polished mahogany base, the whole crafted to a design exclusively reserved to the BPA. Facsimiles of the plaque were awarded for a number of years but later were discontinued. During its currency the plaque had a chequered career for, on one occasion, the best print in the annual exhibition went to a novice and so, of course, did the plaque! Whether or not the exhibition judge on that occasion was ever invited back again to the BPA is not on record.
A news report circulated in 1923 shocked the photographic world by relating that during the Japanese earthquake which took place on September 21st and caused severe damage, the complete set of landscape prints comprising Great Britain’s entry for the Tokyo Exhibition was irretrievably lost. The exhibit included some of the finest bromoil prints produced at that time by Chris Symes, FRPS, a member of the BPA referred to in the previous chapter.
As we approach the last few years of the period under review, mention must be made of a variety of incidents which were to have a bearing on the future of the Association. 1937 was a year of upheaval because it was then that the YMCA sold its premises in Grange Road to British Home Stores and, by so doing, deprived the BPA of what had been its home for so many years. The Association had, of course, long realised the desirability of becoming independent, and therefore felt that this was an opportune moment to sever its connection with the YMCA. The break was carried out in a spirit of mutual goodwill and, very soon afterwards, the BPA was able to acquire temporary accommodation as a short term measure at Tilley’s Cafe, next to Rostance’s Store in Oxton Road. Only a few months later and by the greatest of good fortune, L.B. Berkson, a life member of the BPA for many years, then found himself in the position of being able to offer a vacant suite of rooms above his offices at 30, Hamilton Square, which the BPA gladly accepted, to serve as their new permanent headquarters, at a weekly rental of 13s/6d. The new club rooms were officially opened on 15th December 1937 by the then Mayor of Birkenhead, Mr. G.S. Prentice, who in his opening speech warmly applauded the Association in its efforts to bring a little culture to the town.
The new premises were well suited to the needs of the BPA and no time was lost in re-decorating and fitting out the rooms for their new use. Normal activities were resumed with utmost speed, to such good effect that in 1939 the club achieved one of its finest successes of all time by winning the Premier Award in the “Miniature Camera World” International Exhibition. The Association finished first among 39 of the world’s top-ranking photographic societies, and by so doing placed itself at the forefront of the contemporary competition scene. But seldom does it happen that success like this is gained without the inspiration and leadership of some wise and trusted adviser who is able to impose his influence on those around him. It was Norman Crawshaw, elected President of the BPA in 1939, who filled this role and encouraged workers by his own example and ‘drive’. His service to the club was tireless, and there is little doubt that his encouragement in the years just prior to the second world war was a material factor in the members’ frequent successes in competitions around that time. This had a cumulative effect; it was as though the BPA had acquired a new vitality promoted, as we have said, by its President, but also by what might be called an ‘elitist’ section of members. The tremendous energy and drive displayed by these people attracted such a strong following that the club was able to extend its influence and prominence to a marked degree. Among this hardcore of enthusiasts may be mentioned: L.B. Berkson, Norman Hopkins, Eric Hutchinson, G.J. de la Mare, Eric Law, Bert Shaw, Jack Trace, T.J. Smith and J.A. McAusland.
While commenting on the competition successes of the BPA it must be said that other factors apart from personal ones were contributing to the changes within the club. Advances in the design and range of photographic equipment were playing their part, and exciting developments and new techniques were emerging. We said in the previous chapter that the introduction of the roll film was affecting camera design but, ultimately, the full impact of these changes could be seen by the introduction first of the 2 ¼ ” square twin-lens reflex camera (spearheaded by the Rolleiflex in 192, and then by the 35mm. Leica with rangefinder focussing. The acquisition of one or other of these German-built miniature cameras was like a ‘shot in the arm’ to most club photographers, and the average amateur suddenly found himself able to produce a good picture every time he pressed the shutter. Home processing, too, of the newer types of films and papers, became a task which almost anyone could tackle with a very fair chance of success. Certainly, as far as the BPA was concerned, an increasing number of its members felt able to enter the competition field with more confidence and consequent satisfaction to themselves.
At the time war was declared on 3rd September 1939, the BPA was operating at full pressure and, in fact, was able to continue doing so more or less until late 1940. By this time many members had been absorbed into the Forces, although some, in uniform, still attended the meetings. In November 1941 it was finally decided to close the clubrooms at 30, Hamilton Square for the duration of hostilities. It so happened that Norman Crawshaw once again stepped into the breach for, being in a reserved occupation with Lever Brothers, he was able to volunteer to ‘hold the fort’ during the shut-down period by dealing with correspondence and attending to any day-to-day business which happened to arise. These arrangements continued until 1944 when the club re-opened its doors once again and the customary activities were resumed.