June 11: A woman who is a photographer encounters presumptions about her technical skills.
Julia Margaret Cameron, born on this day in 1815, is familiar to all who love photography. She did not take it up until given a camera in 1863 when she was forty-eight; in only fifteen years she produced nearly 4,000 prints from negatives of around 1,000 images, achieved through her fanatic enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible energy.
Volumes have already been written about her from every angle, most about her innovation in the art of the portrait and the tableau, her Christian symbolism, her proto-feminism, the fact that she was amongst the first to treat photography as an art form – she always referred to it as Art – and to successfully market it as such, her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, and her pre-eminence among the first women practitioners.
Amongst these texts one often reads about ‘out-of-focus’ and ‘soft-focus’ in Cameron’s work and usually in reference to the contemporary reception of her work and her statements about these phenomena. It is about them that I will write here since questions of focus are also my own passion.
Cameron had only just begun her career as a photographer when she expressed in her 1864 letter to her mentor Sir John Herschel her ambition to:
…induce an ignorant public to believe in other than mere conventional topographic Photography – map making and skeleton rendering of feature and form without that roundness and fullness of force and feature that modelling of flesh and limb which the focus I use only can give tho’ called and condemned as ‘out of focus’.
What is focus and who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus [. . .] My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty. [. . .] Your eye can best detect and your imagination conceive all that is to be done.
What caused her to so assert such a position? It may have been the influence of portraitist David Wilkie Wynfield, an advocate of soft-focus say some.
Then there are those, the first being Helmut Gernsheim, who claim it was Cameron’s excuse for her technical incompetence and accidental, sloppy methodology.
Others account for it in physiological terms as being due to Cameron’s amblyopia (‘lazy eye’).
Still others attribute it only to the design of the lens she was using, her first being a Jamin, made in Paris a Petzval type that was made specifically for portraiture with a severe curvature of field.
None of Cameron’s cameras survive and the only lens to come down to us is her first (above), used for glass plates approximately 12 x 10 inch (31 x 25.4 cm).
In the summer of 1865 Cameron began using a larger camera, which held a 15 x 12 inch (38 x 31 cm) glass negative to which, early in the following year, she seems to have adopted as her sole instrument, though with what lens it was equipped is unknown.
With her new camera, Cameron embarked on making a series of large-scale, close-up heads that better satisfied her photographic vision.
These are huge formats; 8 x 10 inch has been considered the largest practicable by most twentieth century photographers. Cameron was producing albumen contact prints from her wet collodion glass negatives, and therefore the size of the negative was a major consideration. The process required exposing her images onto the plates just after they had been coated, which dictated her use of a studio that was near her darkroom but even so, breakages, damage to the emulsion and developing stains were inevitable; evidence of these, which Cameron would overlook in favour of successful effects, are what brought Gernsheim to the conclusion that she was incompetent technically.
To anyone who has handled a large format camera however, and even if they have used nothing but film rather than wet collodion, the challenges of such equipment and processes are acknowledged to be daunting.
Let’s depart from consideration of her more conventional portraits to look at her allegorical or religious images of women and there see evidence of very deliberate use, specifically of focus, rather than concentrate on her ‘soft-focus’.
Here is her 1865 The return after three days which refers to a biblical episode featuring the 12-year-old Jesus and his parents. Cameron shows a younger child accompanied by two women, with a third woman just visible at the right edge; her biblical interpretations were often not literal, dictated by the available cast of friends, servants and children or were titled after the fact.
The Victoria and Albert online collection generously provides large files made directly from Cameron’s prints and with them we can make close examination without the interference of the dot-screen with which print reproductions are made.
What we find are several points of quite sharp focus, perhaps not as crisp as one would see in a daguerreotype portrait for example, but sharp by comparison with very soft surrounding subject matter. Disregard effects of long exposure such as can be seen in the movement of the boy’s tightly clasped hands between the blooms.
We can see that the plane of focus is extremely shallow. Depth of field is what dictates this; Cameron does not stop down her lens and what she saw in the ground glass is an effect familiar to all photographers when she says “…when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon…”
[for another photographer’s explanation of the poetic potential of focus, and some beautiful images, see Isabel Curdes]
The sharpness of those flowers in the foreground – an incidental still life that is in fact the closest Cameron comes to making one (she cared only for human subjects) – and of the boy’s eyes, are in vivid contrast to other parts.
A tactile effect this produces prompts a sensation that we can reach into the image. The soft focus on the other hand is ethereal and dissolves form into an aura that pervades the space. This is effect that is evident in a motif repeated many times that uses a similar composition in depth; particularly a series in which either Cameron’s grandson or the son of neighbours Percy Keown, sleeps in the foreground, .
Cameron ambitiously adds more and more figures to such compositions, flirting dangerously with the limitations of focus…
That her determination to persist with such difficult compositions, with this particular arrangement in depth so intriguing to her, is evident in the collage (below) Cameron made by piecing together a fragment of negative with a full image.
Prayer and Praise is, I believe, the most challenging of all of this series. Tightly cropped, it demonstrates a tilting of the plane of focus to bring three subjects that are separated in depth, into sharpness, an example of what is known nowadays as ’tilt and shift’.
It is an effect could be achieved by looking down on the subject from above, thereby effectively inclining the shallow area of sharp focus into the space below. Tilting the lens panel forward or tilting the plate holder back will produce the same result with greater ease and precision. In my own experience using either methods with human subjects, even with a much smaller 4″x5″ camera, is especially challenging, for models as well as the photographer. Such movements are found on studio cameras as early as the 1840s, but as noted above Cameron’s larger format camera was not preserved so its capability for tilting is not known.
Cameras fitted with tilt and swing backs appeared for sale in 1853 and are described in catalogues of 1849 and later, and there are claims it was introduced by Dr Leeson in 1845, so it is feasible that Cameron used that technique of a tilting front such as was possible on some Kinnear pattern cameras as early as 1860. An innovation was patented by John Cooke Bourne in 1855 that allowed the lens to move in a curved slot the radius of which was the same as the focal length of the lens, thus speeding up the trail-and-error focussing and adjustment and refocusing that would otherwise be necessary.
These images by Cameron point to a level of technical skill well beyond that credited to her by Gernsheim and by her contemporaries who were so quick to ridicule or belittle a woman photographer.
Any who accuse Cameron of ‘imprecision’ are mistaken. Her motive is poetic, but her control of the medium enabled her success in effecting it. As she said:
From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.