The History of Charter Oak Photographic Society
In 1951, 16 years after color photographic film first became commercially available, Joe Chernoff, Betsey Thrasher (nee Blake), and the Ashley family held the Charter Oak Color Slide exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, in Hartford, to celebrate the medium and hopefully connect with other slide photographers. At the time, the two main camera clubs in the region worked primarily in black-and-white prints, rather than in color slide film, and were therefore exclusive. So this exhibition attracted a number of enthusiasts with a common interest. The organizers positioned the show as a fundraising event for local charities, which gathered a lot of publicity, and ultimately received over 3,000 submissions. The organizers and the photographers exhibiting in the show enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to form a camera club dedicated to solely color slide photography: the Charter Oak Color Slide Association. Its first meeting was in the fall of the same year.
An Inclusive Organization
Charter Oak was popular from its beginning, in part because of publicity from The Hartford Times, and in part because of its openness to all. (Another regional camera club excluded women at the time.) Starting with Betsy Thrasher, women have always played an important role in the club. 1966 saw Charter Oak’s first woman president, Charlotte I. Seidl, elected; she was followed six years later by Jane H. Sibley. Since then, women have consistently participated in all executive positions. By 1961, there were over 125 members in the club, and in the 1970s, membership reached its peak, averaging over 350 members annually. Membership declined in the 1980s, but the advent of digital photography brought in a new, younger generation, swelling club members to well over 100 again.
The Charter Oak Color Slide Exhibition
The main feature of the club in its first 25 years was its annual international slide exhibitions. By the third exhibition, Charter Oak International was officially recognized by the Photographic Society of America (PSA), and color slide submissions were received from around the world. Proceeds from the shows were always donated to charity. However, as the show’s popularity grew, so did the work involved with hosting the exhibition. Recruiting new members to help grew more difficult by the early 1970s, so in an effort to reduce the number of submissions, the exhibition changed its subject matter from general slide photography to travel photography. Unfortunately, member support remained elusive, and the 25th and final international exhibition was held in 1976.
The 70s brought other changes to the Charter Oak Color Slide Association. A subgroup of the club started a black-and-white print section, known as the Hot Stove League, in 1972. In 1978, because color negative film and print technology had improved substantially (the film was more stable and prints from negatives had also become both more affordable and of better quality), the club added a color print section to their competitions. Recognizing the expanded interest in the new medium, the club renamed itself the Charter Oak Photographic Society, Inc. (COPS) in 1985.
Charter Oak established an online presence with its first website in 1998, and upgraded to a new design in 2002. The year 2008 saw the development of a third-generation website, which takes advantage of the increasingly high caliber of digital submissions in competitions, and has added interactive components, such as a blog. FOCUS, the club’s monthly newsletter, changed from mail to email distribution at that time. During that time period, digital photography had been fast evolving. After serious consideration, in 2005, Charter Oak added digital imaging to its rosters of programs, recognizing the rapid proliferation of this new technology.
The enormous popularity and affordability of digital photography has had a significant impact on club competitions. In 2007, slide submissions were still a very strong component of the club’s monthly competitions. However, by 2010, only a few stalwarts were still contributing to the slide category. The availability of home-based color inkjet printing and affordable professional printing services have allowed the print categories to remain stable throughout the last few years. However, the digital image has emerged as the new medium of choice, with over fifty submissions into monthly competitions.
The Club Today
Charter Oak continues to boast over 100 active members from across Connecticut. It regularly sends its best work to the New England Camera Club Council (NECCC) competitions. The club’s excellent reputation allows it to bring in top-notch professional photographers for teaching seminars and presentations. The photography proficiency of many club members means they are sought after to present programs, give instruction and judge in other club’s competitions. Charter Oak members have been published and have participated in international photographic competitions as well as other art events. In 2012, the club’s newsletter was renamed The FOCUS.
Though most members retain their amateur photographer status, a few are developing professional careers. Despite the great change in photographic technology in the new millennium, enthusiasm for the art of photography at Charter Oak only grows, and participation in the club continues to foster photographic excellence and personal satisfaction.