Ray Brightman has been a member of Sheffield Photographic Society for 58 years. He describes his ‘wonderful exciting hobby’ to David Bocking
IN the early days of his photographic career for the English Steel Corporation, Ray Brightman would have to produce shots of room-sized boiler drums destined for the nation’s power stations
“You’d have powerful flashlights on stands with cables to a control box, you’d have a black cloth over your head with a big plate camera, you’d switch the thing to fire, press the release, there was a great big flash and that was that,” he says.
“You’d often just do one picture on one particular set up, then you’d come back into the darkroom, process the thing and breathe a sigh of relief when it came up.”
Ray has been photographing Sheffield and the wider world since he was a young teenager, armed with his sister’s box brownie on the platform of Sheffield Midland station.
“Train spotting and photographing went together,” he says. “I was looking back at those old negatives, and they were absolutely appalling.”
After being demobbed from the RAF in 1954, the 20-year-old Ray bought a better camera and joined the Sheffield Photographic Society, which was 90 years old at the time he joined, one of the oldest such societies in the world.
Ray has been involved with the society ever since, organising and judging competitions, putting on lectures, showing his own work, and taking the role of society president four times. For ten years he was also the Yorkshire organiser for the 10,000 strong and internationally respected Royal Photographic Society, which awards prestigious distinctions for photographic work.
Ray, who lives in Woodseats, remembers his application for the highest RPS distinction, the Fellowship.
“I decided to go for the Fellowship in 1973 with a 40 minute audio visual programme, covering the little mesters, the Oakes at Norton, and a general miscellany, with the people concerned telling their own stories,” he says.
“I had to go down to the HQ in London with a tape recorder and two boxes of slides, all in order. I remember thinking if I dropped them it would have been disastrous.”
He presented his successful show to the judging panel surrounded by equipment, using a stopwatch and script. Nowadays, he reflects, an AV show can consist of a CD in a computer.
Ray’s love of photography took him away from his clerical job at Wicker railway goods yard to a job as a professional industrial photographer, first for the English Steel Corporation, then for the Yorkshire Electricity Board.
But he still set out on his days off with his personal cameras, looking for ‘pictorial’ photographs for the society’s competitions and exhibitions.
He has, he estimates, tens of thousands of photographs, many covering the changing city of Sheffield. He picks from various old print boxes mounted sepia prints of Butcher Works in the 1960s, an Attercliffe urchin holding old tins of spaghetti he’s using as toys, carefully composed landscapes of the Peak District and beyond, a grizzled timber salvager from the 1970s, and an evocative monochrome (aka black and white) still life of a decaying cart wheel and blacksmith’s bellows at Norton.
“It was all monochrome prints when I started,” Ray says. “Then people moved on to audio visual, and digital colour printing. And now the fashionable thing is to do monochrome prints again. People think monochrome is artistic - it can be if you know what sort of subjects suit it, for example something with a good strong design.”
He observes that the Duchess of Cambridge is in the news for producing a recent selection of monochrome photos of her travels in Borneo.
“Some of them are quite passable,” he says carefully.
One important change in photography is that digital cameras have reduced the expense, he says. “ You can shoot thousands of images and pick the best out . And it allows you to take risks - for example, yesterday I saw some cloud formations and took 12 or 14 pictures with different exposures, whereas I might have taken one or two in the past.”
Technical changes have often encouraged good photography, he believes, and the hobby is still attracting new members, with 100 in the Sheffield society and 70 local photographic societies in Yorkshire alone.
“In the society now there are a lot of extremely accomplished photographers, who are not content just to take the view in front of them, they will do creative work, the boundaries are being extended all the time.”
As Christmas approaches, the inevitable adverts for the latest multi-megapixel cameras should be treated with caution, he says.
“The camera is just a tool. They say buy the latest camera, and you’ll be David Bailey - who are they trying to kid?”
And after a lifetime of photography, Ray still carries his camera every day, ever watchful for the picture.
“It’s a wonderful exciting hobby, it really is. When I look back to mixing up chemicals, the overpowering smell of fixer and stained fingers, and all the trouble you had to go to - now you can just press a button. But when you switch to replay and see the picture you’ve just taken, it’s still magical.”
• Be selective - decide what you want in the photo and leave out all extraneous details
• Experiment - once you have your ‘back up shot’, move in or out, and try different angles
For more information visit Sheffield Photographic Society