Julia Margaret Cameron: The Art of Imperfection

Laurie says:

I wish I could say that my work was influenced by Julia Cameron’s portraits.  I’ve seen a fair number of the originals and I admire them a great deal.   But I didn’t find her work until my portrait style had been long established.  I think it’s possible that if I had discovered her earlier she might have had a real effect on my work. I became a photographer when I was 47 with no previous experience.  Cameron became one at 48 with a similar lack of experience.  We also share. among other things, an unrelenting focus on our work. She was a member of the British colonial aristocracy so clearly we have only aspects of our art in common. All of the quotes are from Anthony Lane’s review of her work at an exhibition at the Met.  It’s well worth reading all of it.  The link to the museum’s slides of her portraits is here.

..In 1863, however, there was a lull. Charles {her husband} was away in Ceylon, as were two of the couple’s sons. Julia was lonely (“I assume vivacity of manner for my own sake as well as for others,” she said, in a gust of candor), and one of her daughters gave her a present to keep her spirits up, adding, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude.” The gift was a camera. She was forty-eight years old. Being given a camera, in the eighteen-sixties, especially if you were a woman, was like being given a new Mini nowadays: the latest boxy object, practical and fun (“It may amuse you”), lending dash to your existence and allowing you to see more of your friends. What Cameron got, in fact, was two wooden boxes, one of which slid inside the other, with a French lens of fixed aperture. Images were recorded on a heavy, rectangular glass plate—the film of its day—measuring eleven inches by nine. In 1866, when the bug had bitten deep, she upgraded to an even bulkier piece of kit, which took plates of fifteen by twelve. Not only would a Mini be easier to operate. It would be easier to carry.

She understood that perfection is not what great work is about, contrary to the dominant schools of 20th century photography.


portrait of Julia Jackson

Julia Jackson

“I felt my way literally in the dark thro’ endless failures,” she stated in a letter of February, 1864. Her hands, not to mention her table linen, grew black and brown with chemicals, among them potassium cyanide, used to remove excess developer. She persevered, printing a negative that more finicky artists would have thrown away. One of her best-known images from that year, a portrait of the teen-age actress Ellen Terry, entitled “Sadness,” was patched up, rephotographed, and reissued in 1875, but I prefer the original (the J. Paul Getty Museum has a fine example), with a gaping black triangle in the lower half where the collodion peeled away from the glass. It tells us what Cameron believed was worth preserving, and what wounds could be borne in that cause. Similarly, at the Met, look at “Sappho” (1865), in which one of her housemaids, Mary Hillier, is posed in profile, wearing a richly embroidered dress, and you will witness a torn white line running from the left-hand border, imprinted by an angry crack in the plate. Do we think the less of this study in dignity, or do we see past such flaws, or through them, much as we accept them in somebody we love?

And she understood that the vision is in the eye of the artist and not an abstract standard of what is “right”.  And she had the necessary complete confidence in her vision.


portrait of Alice Liddell

Alice Liddell (of Wonderland)

..Then, there is the fuzzy matter of focus. Nothing in Cameron’s legacy is fought over with more gusto (“It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges,” one thunderous rival photographer wrote), and nothing in her own pronouncements is more abrupt than the challenge she put to Sir John Herschel in a letter: “What is focus—& who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?” Herschel was highly qualified to enlighten her, being not just “an illustrious and revered as well as beloved friend” and, like his father, William, a leading astronomer but also a photographic pioneer, who discovered hypo (still used as a fixer to stabilize negatives and prints), and was the first to employ the word “negative” in this sense. But Cameron, as usual, was not expecting a reply. Scorning the “definite focus” desired by other practitioners, she preferred to stop focussing when she arrived at “something which to my eye was very beautiful,” an assertion that has encouraged later commentators to wonder about her eyesight. Even when she changed cameras and switched to a lens with a movable aperture, she chose to keep it at its widest, which meant a shallow depth of field—one thin plane of focus, with everything in front of it and behind it slipping into a haze. Factor in the lengthy exposure time, which forced Cameron’s sitters to attempt immobility—described by one of them as “torture”—and you realize how precarious the search for clarity must have been. But what exactly did she wish to make clear? Her most perceptive biographer of recent years, Victoria Olsen, gets the balance right: “Cameron could make perfectly focused images but she did not always want to.” Herschel himself sat for Cameron, over two days in 1867. In one shot, she homed in on the most precise of focal points: the stubble on the old man’s chin. (Too wise for vanity, he said that it “beats hollow everything I ever liked in photography before.”) The Met has two more results from that sitting, very like one another, and less sharp. The rheumy eyes that have seen stars—Herschel had already published his “General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars”—are the lens’s target, yet, despite being viewed not through a telescope but from a few feet away, they are in a mist.

Herschel is encumbered with no props; nothing gives a clue to his labors or a hint of his formal eminence. All we have is a face, emerging from blackness and staring at us with gentle perplexity, sad and unsevere, as though inquiring into the origin of our species. As Cameron wrote to a friend, “The history of the human face is a book we don’t tire of, if we can get its grand truths, & learn them by heart.” A white neckerchief encircles the sage’s throat, rhyming with the messy halo, like a solar flare, around his head. The happiest rumor surrounding this majestic photograph is that its maker prepared the way, shortly beforehand, by getting the great man to wash his hair.

portrait of Sir John Herschel

Sir John Herschel

Her portraits vividly capture the individually of her subjects.  (She photographed many of her famous friends.) The character of many of her photographs of women are strong and vivid and are a powerful contradiction to Victorian stereotypes. Although, we are not seeing what her contemporaries saw. We are seeing brilliant work in the context of our time.

Cameron’s work, unusually for me, makes me feel like I’ve touched another photographer across time.