Through the Looking Glass: On Julia Margaret Cameron and Exquisite Imperfection

April Johnston
Jul 14, 2013 10:55PM

Despite the occasional detail which might suggest a lack of technical skill, Julia Margaret Cameron had a complete working knowledge of the photographic medium, as well as a highly artistic approach to portraiture, and was no less of a photographer for being associated with the British Amateurs.

Though Julia Margaret Cameron has been accepted as one of the greatest early photographers, much debate surrounds the overall quality of her pictures. Cameron is often categorized with ‘The Amateurs,’ used in reference to the first group of non-professional photographers to take advantage of the medium after the expiration of Talbot’s copyright in 1848. When the term ‘Amateur’ is used to describe this group, it is not derogatory. However, a number of scholars and critics believe she was, in fact, an amateur in the colloquial  sense: a novice with little talent or technical skill. In some of Cameron’s early work, there are occasional irregularities which imply error in her photographic process. For example, the 1864 albumen print Sadness looses much of its clarity in the bottom middle of the plate, and The Rosebud Garden of Girls dating to 1868 appears focused in certain areas, with important elements such as faces and bouquets reading as slightly blurred. While this is cause for some discussion, such irregularities are not entirely common throughout Cameron’s body of work, and are usually small enough as to not draw much attention. Yet there is one photograph in which the questionable technicality has become the cause of much debate: her 1867 albumen print photograph of Sir Thomas Carlyle. It has never been made clear if the image’s slight blurriness was a technical fault on the part of the artist, or was a result of Cameron’s Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite artistic inspirations.   

In first considering these opinions, it is necessary to study and understand the process by which her photographs are made. Albumen photography requires that the glass plate used to make the negative is covered in a chemical substance, collodion, which acts as a developing agent. The collodion coating is very delicate. After this initial coating, the entire glass plate is submerged in a liquid chemical bath; if the plate is mishandled in any way, the integrity of the negative will be weakened and the subsequent image will be blemished1. The blurriness seen in the portrait of Carlyle could quite possibly be a result of the difficulties in executing an albumen print successfully. If this is the case, the haziness and occasional lack of detail is not lack of skill on Cameron’s part, but rather a characteristic quality of albumen print photography. In addition to the technical difficulty in making such photographs, part of albumen printing’s popularity in mid-nineteenth-century England resulted from the romantic appearance of the developed images. The British photographer Philip Henry Delamotte, a contemporary of Cameron’s, described albumen prints as having a “brilliancy of effect by a softening of the glaring white of the lights, with a transparency in the shadows, which cannot be arrived at by any other means.”2 It was because of the way albumen paper affected the image that it was so commonly used. Yet, another one of its intrinsic qualities was that the paper has a tendency to fade, which also blurs the image. British artists came to terms with this by realizing that the softness added to their final photographs as a result of the albumen process fit perfectly the romantic emotions they were trying to communicate.   

Slight haziness was thought to add to the mood of a photograph, and was very often intentional. The haziness of the Carlyle portrait was Cameron’s way of presenting him in a contemplative manner consistent with the ideals of romanticism. Photographer and author Elizabeth Heyert feels similarly, and discusses how Cameron liked the way a delicate blur could act as an editing mechanism: “She would go to any lengths for a beautiful image, including kicking her camera stand during a long exposure to throw the image out of focus and soften the harsh reality of her sitter’s human flaws.3” Additionally, Heyert argues that the questionable effect of the portrait should not be considered technical laziness, but rather proof that ever the romantic artist, Cameron was more concerned with capturing her sitter’s internal spiritual qualities4. 

While it was common for Victorian era photographs to have a certain softness about them, other critics maintain that the appearance of the Carlyle portrait is more soft than would have been considered acceptable by a skilled photographer. There were certain implied guidelines to be followed in the execution of Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite photography; regardless of how dream-like their subject was, Victorian photography on the whole valued “clarity of fact, realism of depiction, poetic sentiment and the haunting charm of the stilled transience of the photograph.5” Author Anne Higonnet also shares the opinion that Cameron was notoriously faulty in her execution: “Cameron was famous for her technical imperfections-the marred, blurred, smudged prints.”6 This would certainly seem to discredit any intentionality Cameron might have had in producing the blurred focus of this photograph. In considering the seemingly haphazard focus of the Carlyle portrait along side the rest of Cameron’s body of work, critic Weston Naef comments, “It is a physical flaw that is certainly not as damaging as the one in the Ellen Terry portrait, but something that she is accepting  as part of the picture...I genuinely believe, however, that Cameron was in search of technical perfection.7” Naef, while agreeing that the photo is flawed, takes a unique stance in that he does not argue that Cameron was a talentless photographer.   

There are clearly two sides of this discussion. Yet, after considering early photographic processes in conjunction with the ideals of Pre-Raphaelite artists in Victorian England, it becomes much more probable that Cameron was, in fact, an artist in her own right who was well aware of the so-called ‘flaws’ in some of her pictures. Cameron did not just embodied Pre-Raphaelite ideology in her artwork. She was the epitome of a new generation of photographers, whose motives are described by author Eugenia Parry Janis: “For everyone, photography was the quest of the amateur, a category within which women were immanently comfortable. Hardly expected to succeed at anything, except as amateurs, they they already knew the joy of doing things for the love of it.”8  Cameron made herself a leading figure in this photographic movement by tirelessly pursuing creative images. Her passion can be seen in her emotive portraits, and the albumen print of Sir Thomas Carlyle is no exception. Whether or not the haze was a mistake is almost irrelevant to her artistic identity, as the finished print fits seamlessly in her overall body of work. Part of her great artistry is the way her ethereal compositions coincide with the visual effects of the printing process. Janis quotes the photographer’s own words on capturing the mysterious qualities of the portrait sitter: “Cameron wrote that she sought in the immortal human face the ‘mighty influence of the mystery of beauty...its secret, swift, and subtle....spell.’ She turned all of her sitters into spellbinders.”9 Carlyle is without a doubt a spellbinder. In this particular photo, Cameron casts her creative spell by placing Carlyle disarmingly close to the front of the picture plane, and, arguably, by distorting the focus. In the expressive light the viewer is drawn to his pensive, almost brooding expression, and in it finds the Romantic spirit Cameron was after. Heyert believes “an astonishing feature of JMC’s photographs is that they cannot be imitated. Among the mass of genre photographs and soft focus portraits of people costumed for Victorian theatricals, Cameron’s photographs remain unique in the impact of their heightened feeling.”10 B.E.C. Howarth-Loomes, a specialist in Victorian photography, succinctly states the importance of Cameron’s photographic approach and the impact it had on the future of creative photography: “Only a single figure stands out in this era as a truly modern, self-defining romantic artist: Julia Margaret Cameron, who willingly placed herself apart from the rest of the photographic world and developed an entirely personal style.”11 This personal style was the result of a deep desire to produce beautiful photographs exploring the intricacies of the soul. In the portrait of Carlyle, along with her other portraits, Cameron sets herself apart as a photographer by allowing every visual aspect of the piece to have creative significance, even if her results were interpreted with criticisms as being novice errors.   

Because of the implications such seemingly technical imperfections have on the understanding of Cameron as a great Victorian photographer, the discussion about the intentionality of certain visual effects is one worth having. It is important to remember that Cameron was producing photographs at a very early time in the history of photography, at which point the actual process of making photographs was still very new, and not to mention difficult. Even if it could be concluded that the slight focal distortion seen in the albumen print of Sir Thomas Carlyle was not intentional, that would not detract from the artistic message of the portrait. Technically imperfect or not, Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs embody the artistic standard for early Victorian creative photographs.

References:    1 Gernsheim, Helmut. Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life, 3.     2 Sobeiszek, British Masters, 5.     3 The Glass House, 117.     4 ibid, 118.     5 Sobeiszek, British Masters, 2.     6 Higonnet, “Passionate Portraits,” The Women’s Review of Books 16, 3 (1998): 6.    7 Greenberg, Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs, 118.     8 Janis, “Her Geometry,” in Women Photographers, 12.     9 ibid.     10 Heyert, The Glass House Years, 117.     11 Howarth-Loomes, Victorian Photography, 13.

April Johnston