Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

St. Louis Camera Club and the Camera Club Council of St. Louis

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cover of St. Louis Camera Club newsletter from 1945

By the time of Thomas Easterly‘s death in 1882, St. Louis had burgeoned as an important center of portrait photography in America. It’s no surprise then that soon thereafter, an organization would be formed that would unite picture makers in and around the city. By most estimates, the St. Louis Camera Club was established before 1892 as a community for photographers (to interact, have their work critiqued, participate in exhibitions, and partake in expeditions afield); this is a tradition that caries through to today.

In the beginning, photography was the pursuit of scientists, who proved in their work that a moment could endure by photochemical means. Slowly, as technology advanced to make the action of picture-making faster and easier, artists became drawn to the medium, as well as (objective) documentarians, eager to express something of their conception through the lens of a camera. In 1888, the Eastman Kodak company introduced a revolutionary camera preloaded with film. Their slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”, suddenly meant that almost anyone could take a picture, and seemingly, almost everyone did.

The St. Louis Camera Club came into being alongside other such clubs all around the country. Every city from Des Moines to Philadelphia had a camera club, a testament to the extraordinary growth of amateur photography resulting from the Eastman Kodak model. This isn’t to say that artistry was not required to produce a print of refinement, and in fact, alongside the amateur photography explosion flourished important artistic ideas in photography (Pictorialism, previsualization, photo-collage, Surrealism, abstraction, etc.). The clubs were important outlets for ideological exchange, and by the 1940’s, were powerful, unified entities capable of shaping the cultural landscape.

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submission packet for St. Louis Camera Club exhibition

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cover of a Camera Club Council newsletter from 1945

In 1934, the Photographic Society of America was founded. Part of the mission of this organization was to establish requirements for affiliated camera clubs, and to offer strategies to improve organization and education related to their individual activities. Under this web, camera clubs within a region united to become councils; councils united to become chapters. Around 1930, the Camera Club Council of St. Louis was created with the St. Louis Camera Club as its principal member. The Council was directed by individuals prominent in both business and the arts in St. Louis at the time. In 1941, the Camera Club Council of St. Louis collaborated with the City Art Museum (now Saint Louis Art Museum) to introduce the first Saint Louis International Salon of Photography, which displayed work by 200 photographers from 22 countries (including the United States and Hawaii). The International Salons, and partnership between the institutions, continued until 1955. Work exhibited in the Salons varied widely to include everything from landscapes and documentary photos to nudes. By 1943, membership had grown so large in the 20 camera clubs which made up the Council, that the Camera Club Council of St. Louis was reported to be the largest in the United States. After fourteen years of staging the event, the jury had viewed more than 15,000 prints and several thousand slides, and approved nearly 5,000 art objects for display. During this time (possibly on account of the Salons), the City Art Museum began collecting photography in earnest, and selected several prints from many of the Salons for purchase. In a 1945 letter to the Camera Council, the Museum’s Director, Charles Nagel, Jr., wrote, “Several fine prints were added to the recently inaugurated collection of photographic material. No field of endeavor is more truly of our own time than that of photography, and the Museum hopes by the yearly acquisition of top-flights prints from the St. Louis International Salon of Photography and from other sources, to be able to present an illuminating survey of the historic and artistic development of photography.” A mission that continues today.

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exhibition flyers for some of the International Salons

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cover of pamphlet distributed for the 1945 International Salon

Unfortunately for the Camera Club Council of St. Louis, representing even a media as viable and timely as photography was not enough to sustain it. By the end of the 1940’s, the Council had largely disintegrated, just as many of the camera clubs throughout the country were dissolving. This was due somewhat to changing technologies (photography was easier and cheaper to practice independently), somewhat due to post-War “white flight” (members moved away from city centers, dispersing over larger areas which made maintaining membership difficult), and somewhat due to shifting educational ideologies (art programs, including photography, were beginning to be offered at many colleges and universities negating the need for communal learning opportunities). Although the Council no longer exists, its principal member, the St. Louis Camera Club, does.

The St. Louis Camera Club continues to offer high-quality programming, in association with the Photographic Society of America, which provides local photographers with a chance to learn and connect. The Club meets each Wednesday, from the first one in September to the last one in May, at The Ethical Society on Clayton Road. Individual membership is $40, and includes educational programs and speakers, exhibition opportunities, and a community of over 350 peers. I recently had the opportunity to interview Donald York, President of St. Louis Camera Club, about his organization, and its connection to the history of photography in St. Louis. That interview begins below.

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Donald York, President of St. Louis Camera Club

HOI- What year did the St. Louis Camera Club originate, and what was the climate like for photography in St. Louis at that time?

DY- Our official date of being founded is February 12,1914, but there is evidence that our Club was functioning in 1891 (NY Times Story). The first bylaws and Board of Directors were established in the 1940’s. [The New York Times article is linked here. Also, here’s a mention from 1890 in the book, The Amateur Photographer, Volume 2. ]

HOI- Who were the organization’s founders? Who were some of the early members?

DY- In 1891, we know that the following members were active participants– R.E.M. Bain, John Dunn, William M. Butler, and John B. Holman.

HOI- How was the national network of Camera Clubs organized, and were there requirements for association?

DY- The Photographic Society of America was the first to unite photographers across the country. They invited clubs, as well as individuals, to membership. Our Club has been a member since 1940.

HOI- What was the original mission for the St. Louis Camera Club?

DY- Our original mission was “to promote, encourage and foster the photographic art in all its forms, to plan and to hold photographic exhibitions and competitions, and to do all proper things consonant to these purposes”.

HOI- Has this changed over the years; if so, how?

DY- Our new mission statement is as follows:
The mission of the Club is to promote the art of photography in a social environment where photographers of all skill levels are welcomed. The Club embraces the advancement of the art through member education in new ideas, technologies and development of creative visioning.

HOI- The St. Louis Camera Club has hosted many acclaimed photographers over the years as guest speakers and educators. Will you recall some interesting examples, and possibly, provide some anecdotes?

DY- We have had Franz Lanting, Thomas Murphy, David Stocklein, [and] Jennifer Woo [among others].

HOI- Walter Benjamin published his influential work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936, many years after the founding of the Camera Club. This publication, and many others before and after, questioned the legitimacy of photography as an art form. How has the St. Louis Camera Club dealt with the variety of intentions, ranging from purely art to purely utilitarian, that photographers bring to the camera?

DY- Our club has invited presentations weekly from a variety of photographers, artists, graphic artists, nature photographers, etc. We still have active debates over art forms as photographic images.

We incorporate many of these forms into our 6 classes of competition – Nature, Color, Phototravel, Photojournalism, Color Prints, Monochrome Prints. We deal with all forms of image making, although our presentations are solely digital images projected and prints, both color and monochrome.

HOI- In 1941, the St. Louis Camera Club partnered with the City Art Museum (now Saint Louis Art Museum) to produce the first St. Louis International Salon of Photography. The Salons and the partnership continued annually from 1941 through 1955. How did this arrangement come about, and what was the extent of the Club’s association with the Museum?

DY- No information. [HOI note: This is probably because the Camera Council mediated any individual involvements between the camera clubs and the Museum.]

HOI- Can you describe what the environment of the Salons might have been like?

DY- Many of the early salons used lantern slides to project the images. This was popular from 1890 – 1940’s. From the 1940’s on, much activity was focused on black and white prints, and the processes involved in printing these images. [HOI note: Mr. York is correct. The 8th St. Louis International Salon of Photography was the first to allow transparencies, but these were a different thing altogether than the glass lantern slides shown in earlier, unrelated salons/exhibitions. Before the 8th, only monochrome prints were accepted to the SLISP.]

HOI- “The Camera Club Council Chatter”, of November, 1945, reported that the Museum acquired several prints from each of the International Salons. Do you have any idea how many St. Louis Camera Club members’ photos entered into SLAM’s collection resulting from the Salons? Do you know of any notable careers launched from this era?

DY- No. [HOI note: It’s very difficult to know definitively the answers to these questions, but it is true that a number of very important artists showed work at the Salons, while at various stages of their careers. Some examples- Chin-San Long, George Richmond Hoxie, Anne Pilger Dewey, Paul Lewis Anderson, Laura Gilpin, and Wellington Lee.]

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exhibition flyer for the Fourth St. Louis International Photography Salon

HOI- In 1943, St. Louis reporter, Harry R. Burke, wrote, “…the Camera Council of the greater St. Louis area, has grown within three years to be the largest in America.” What were the factors for this growth, and was the Camera Council another reference to the St. Louis Camera Club, or was the Camera Club a facet of the Council? How did the Camera Council come about [asked before my research was completed]?

DY- From what I hear, the Camera Club developed in spite of the Council. It was the beginnings of the modern camera [era], and people were excited to share their images. By keeping our membership dues low, [and] offering teaching and education in all aspects of photography, the Club was and is a major force in photography, with currently over 350 active members.

HOI- When did you become involved with the St. Louis Camera Club?

DY- A friend suggested that I should attend a meeting. I was hooked forever!

HOI- What has been your focus as its President?

DY- I was the President for the past two years. Its a management job (keeping track of 20 active committees, competitions, salons, complaints, social events), while forging new initiatives and new ideas.

HOI- The Club has always had a physical component, ie. real photographers, gathering in real places, to discuss real prints. In what ways has the Club adapted to the digital era with its online forums of presentation? Do you see more work to be done in this vein?

DY- We had a Visioning Process in January, which was a brainstorming session for new ideas and also a review of what needed to change for the future.

HOI- How has this development in photography, from emphasizing the print to emphasizing the screen, impacted the field at large?

DY- Print competitions have fallen off, due to the cost and labor required to make a print versus the ease of obtaining great quality digital images and submitting images electronically. Actually, prints are still relatively inexpensive with the advent of COSTCO and other retailers.

HOI- Will you summarize the differences between St. Louis’ photographic community at the time of your organization’s founding, at mid-century, and now? Do you view these changes as progress?

DY- The changes have been mind boggling! Imagine spending hours in the dark smelly darkroom of 50 years ago, [all] to obtain a few black and white prints; [this] compared to snapping a picture, viewing and processing on your computer, and sending the image off through the internet to friends, relatives, and competitions within minutes of taking the image.

HOI- Do you view St. Louis as a great city for photography? If so, why?

DY- St. Louis is a great city for photography– the Botanical Gardens, Busch Wildlife Area, Shaw Nature Reserve; plus Venues for sports, old buildings, architectual treasures (ie. Post Office), Basilica, etc.

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The Ethical Society, where the St. Louis Camera Club meets, is an architectural treasure of its own

HOI- Over the many years, the St. Louis Camera Club has drawn to its organization countless individuals, important to both St. Louis and photography. Will you name a few of the notables and include their accomplishments?

DY- Oscar Kuehn served as President from 1914 to 1940, which was definitely some of the formative years of the Club. Evelyn Greaves and Mary Ellen Brucker, who both served as President in the 90”s, did much to grow the club and also enhance our participation in the Photographic Society of America. Larry Gray, Michael Rudman, Linda Stairs, Art Weber and Bert Kitson have all been recognized by the Photographic Society of America. Lonnie Schmidt and Skip LaRue, who were both past-Presidents, introduced and developed the concept of using digital images in competitions, and soon these images took over. Wade Clutton, who was a past President and Webmaster, developed our website to its current state, and was responsible for introducing the world to the Club through the internet, as well as, [for creating] our sophisticated digital image entry system.

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Note: The preceding article is the second chapter in Hours of Idleness’ ongoing series, St. Louis and the History of Photography.

**Much sincere appreciation to Donald York for his gracious commitment of time and cooperation in allowing me to both interview and photograph him, and many kind thanks to Norma Sindelar, Archivist at the Saint Louis Art Museum, for her patience and navigation.

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6 Responses

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  1. […] 2. St. Louis Camera Club and the Camera Club Council of St. Louis […]

  2. Ann said, on July 16, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    What a great history – I had no idea that the STL Camera Club has been around that long…

  3. […] Museum has had many associations with photography, from major exhibitions to supporting the local Camera Club, so it is only natural that Photo Flood Saint Louis finally paid it a […]

  4. Jason Gray said, on July 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I know, right? This city and its artists continue to amaze me!

  5. […] at the City Art Museum (now Saint Louis Art Museum). Ansel Adams had been lured to the city by the Camera Club Council of St. Louis, a major organizer for the Salon, who had booked the photographer for a series of his famous […]

  6. Roger Clements said, on March 24, 2015 at 12:24 pm

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