The Photographic Society of Madras (PSM), established in Madras, was founded in 1857 by Dr. Alexander Hunter, who was the driving force behind the Madras School of Industrial Arts. The PSM elected as its first President, Honorable Walter Elliot, a member of the Governor's Council. The ever popular Elliot’s beach in Madras is named after him. Because of his proximity to the corridors of power, he inducted Lord Harris, the Governor of the 'Madras Presidency' (as the four southern states of India were known before Independence) and his successor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, as members of the Society. Indeed, the roster of the Society in the 1850s read like the Who's Who of the European elite of the times. Army men and civilians alike vied with each other in joining the Society in large numbers. The Society met regularly in the premises of the School of Industrial Arts.
With his dynamism, Dr. Hunter organized a photographic exhibition every year. This soon attained the stature of an international exhibition with extensive participation from various countries. The reports on these exhibitions and of the proceedings of the Society were regularly published in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science. Even today, it is rewarding to go through these reports to understand and assess the amount of photography that was being done in those days. Every type of photography - which was evolving rapidly in those early days - was attempted and practiced by the members. Thus, stereo-photography and photomicrography became very popular and enterprising young men like Lieutenant J Mitchell practiced these even with the primitive equipment then at their disposal.
There were many outstanding photographers in those days, but special mention should be made of the ones that won awards in the Society's exhibitions, like Captain Linnaeus Tripe, W. E. Cochrane, Dr. Neill, Captains Greenlaw and Girdlestone. Captain Tripe distinguished himself further by photographing the architecture of Madurai, Tiruchirapalli, Thanjavur, Thalavadi, Pudukottai and Rayakottai and publishing books in which actual photographs were 'tipped' in along with descriptive text by eminent people like Reverends G U Pope & W Tracey, Norman and Boswell.
It is of great interest to us that his assistant, C. lyahsawmy, was a talented photographer, who also won acclaim in the Society's exhibitions. Unfortunately, images by this early Indian photographer are not available today.
Over a period of time, interest in the society waned due to relocation and the demise of its office bearers. However, in the mid 1880’s, a new set of enthusiasts revitalized the Society and renamed it 'The Madras Amateur Photographic Society'. Successive Governors of Madras, including Lord Wenlock, Sir Arthur Elibank Havelock, and Indian princes like the Maharajah of Vizianagaram were patrons of this Society.
The driving force of the Society was Elias Frederick Evans Dunsterville, the auditor of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railways. Possibly because of this, there were a good number of Railwaymen on the membership list. Many eminent men from the field of medicine also displayed keen interest. This included Surgeons like Major Generals De Fabek and Sibthorpe and Lieutenant C Giffard. Major J. L. Vangeyzel, the Chemical Examiner to the Government of Madras, took charge of the Society's Journal as its Editor.
With the onset of the First World War in 1914 and a call to the battlefield, the Society went into a decline. A young lawyer, A. Arunachalam felt the need to revive the activities of the Society and re-registered the Madras Amateur Photographic Society on October 26, 1932 with Howard Oakley as its Patron. It later reverted to its original name and now continues to be known as the Photographic Society of Madras.
The founder and the successive office bearers of the Society have strived hard to stamp its presence on the map of the world photography and it is no small tribute to its excellence that the Society has provided two out of the eight Presidents of the Federation of Indian Photography during the past three decades.
The PSM by virtue of its long history and achievements has numerous affiliations with Photographic Societies and Clubs in India and all over the world including the Royal Photographic Society, London and the Photographic Society of America.
The Society proudly celebrated in 2008, the 150th year of its contributions to photography with a National Salon and gala valedictory function.