'What is focus - and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?'
Julia Margaret Cameron
It’s two hundred years since the birth of the experimental photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and there are two exhibitions in London celebrating her work. (The V&A until 21 February; The Science Museum until 31 March)
Although Cameron came to photography late in life (she first took up a camera at the age of 48), she was a pioneer in the understanding of photography as an art form. Most of the early enthusiasts regarded photography as a science that should concern itself with accuracy and precision. Cameron aimed to ‘record the greatness of the inner as well as the outer man.’
Certainly many of Cameron’s portraits have an intimacy that still resonates today. She shot in profile or face-on, making astute use of lighting and shadow. Her sitters have a stillness, a seriousness, that suggest the private, individual, interior life. It’s as if she’s caught them on their own in a room looking in the mirror.
Cameron came in for a good deal of criticism from the Victorian photographic establishment for the perceived ‘mistakes’ in her work. There were blotches and swirls resulting from the uneven application of chemicals and smearing when the plates were wet. And many of Cameron’s images were slightly out-of-focus.
‘What in the name of all the nitrate of silver that ever turned white into black have these pictures in common with good photography? Smudged, torn, dirty, undefined and in some cases almost unreadable, there is hardly one of them that ought not to have been washed off the plate as soon as its image had appeared.’
The Photographic News
Cameron believed that her technically flawed images conveyed greater emotion, truth and impact. And some of the more enlightened critics of the time agreed.
‘Mrs Cameron was the first person who had the wit to see her mistakes were her successes and henceforward to make her portraits systematically out-of-focus.’
The state of being in-focus is of course a technical matter. But it is also something that is socially determined; something that is felt.
In a fabulous scene from Woody Allen’s 1997 movie, Deconstructing Harry, a camera crew is having problems shooting the actor Mel, played by Robin Williams. After inspecting their lenses, they conclude that there’s nothing wrong with their equipment. It’s Mel that is out-of-focus.
‘Mel, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re soft. You’re out-of-focus…I want you to go home; and want you to get some rest. See if you can just sharpen up.’
I have a lot of sympathy for Mel. Sometimes we just don’t seem to be in tune with everyone else. We’re out of step, misaligned. Sometimes we feel out-of-focus.
Could the communications and marketing industries learn from Julia Margaret Cameron? Would we ever willingly seek to be out-of-focus?
We are for the most part cursed by an obsession with polish and perfection. But this very finesse may diminish our ability to communicate authenticity, integrity and emotion. Conveying truth is not the same as conveying fact. Facts are hard, precise, unyielding. Truth is a matter for intuition, interpretation and imagination.
We could also learn from Julia a singularity of purpose, a determination in the face of critical pressure.
My mother was a keen amateur painter. She worked in oils using a palette knife, a method taught by the TV artist Nancy Kominsky (Paint Along with Nancy was a big deal in the UK in the 1970s). I once came across her painting a series of seagulls on a rock. There were four or five of them all in a line, pointing in the same direction. It looked to me as if they were queueing for a bus. I told mum that this wouldn’t happen in nature; that things are less regimented in real life. She told me she didn’t care. This was the picture she wanted to paint.