Julia Margaret Cameron's Imperfect Images

Karen Kedmey
Dec 22, 2013 10:37PM

In this digital age, when so much of what we see is pixel-based and mediated by a glowing screen, the light- and shadow-saturated photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron are refreshingly physical. At the Met, a selection of her lush albumen silver prints are currently on view, riddled with spots, smudges, blurring, and spidery black lines resulting from cracks in her glass negatives. These deliberate imperfections divided nineteenth century viewers into two camps: those who loved Cameron's willful experimentation with her still-new medium and those, to use a twenty-first century term, who were haters.

One of the Met's wall labels pulls this quote from the latter camp:

"A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practice. In these pictures all that is good in photography has been neglected, and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited."

These so-called "shortcomings"--the relative fragility of glass negatives and the chemical emulsion; the long exposure times requiring fidgety human subjects to remain uncomfortably still--are what make Cameron's photographs so compelling. They interrupt her ethereal, dreamy, otherworldly images by calling attention to the photograph itself and to the earthy chemistry that makes it possible.

These are not photographs that can be looked through, invisible windows onto the image itself. They are more like tactile supports, on top of which the image sits, as delicate as Cameron's subject matter, first formed when light hits the reactive wash painted onto a piece of glass, and easily wiped away.

Karen Kedmey