Sometimes Truth Is Out-Of-Focus

'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.

Mrs Herbert Duckworth

‘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.’
Macmillan Magazine

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.

No. 65

The Dog Under The Telly: Don't Distract Attention, Find The Centre Of It

When I was a child we had a Springer Spaniel called Dillon. Springer Spaniels are somewhat eccentric dogs with inexhaustible energy and passionate loyalty. Dillon’s coat was liver and white and he salivated liberally. He had long shaggy ears that required a special tall bowl to eat from so he didn’t get them caught in his food. In the long hot ‘70s summers I had many happy reflective moments sat with Dillon in the back garden watching birds. But for the most part he was rather a disruptive influence around the house: scratching paintwork, scavenging for unattended Garibaldi biscuits, barking at passers by on Heath Park Road from his elevated vantage point in Sarah’s bedroom. I always imagined Dillon was something of a class warrior as his absolute favourite activity was disturbing the peace at Haynes Park Bowling Club.

As it was the '70s, my family spent most evenings in the over-lit living room, sat on the three-piece suite, watching TV. To prolong its life the three-piece suite was covered in a loud orange-brown floral stretch-cover that Dad had bought from his mate Barry on Romford Market. There we were, five kids, Dad and my sainted Mother ranged in front of The Two Ronnies, The Likely Lads and Tommy Cooper. (I always imagined Dad had commissioned five children as he had not foreseen the advent of the TV remote control.) Dad would be smoking endless Embassy cigarettes; the rest of us consuming endless mugs of sweet tea and toasted Sunblest. ‘To be young was very heaven.’

Despite the general domestic reverie, Dillon was none too happy with this arrangement: he was being ignored. He had discovered that the traditional canine method for attracting attention precipitated a rather gruff response from Dad. In this particular environment he would have to be the dog that didn’t bark.

Eventually Dillon worked out that the best remedy was to position himself under the telly itself, looking out at the Carroll family. Thus he could at least imagine that it was him we were looking at. He could watch us, watching him. He had found proximity to the action. He was involved. And he was back where he belonged: the centre of attention.

Thinking back on Dillon’s idiosyncratic behaviour, I now understand that he was teaching us a fundamental lesson in strategy: don’t seek to distract attention; seek to be at the centre of it. Find your own way of participating in culture. Find relevance, join in, get involved, contribute.

Over the years working with Clients in many different sectors, I noticed that often there was a kind of melancholy amongst those who managed brands that were not in some way part of the zeitgeist. Their fellow Marketers were having so much fun working with mobile phones, tablets, craft beers and yogurty drinks. They could gleefully contribute to trend presentations on connectivity, the wisdom of crowds, artisanal craft and holistic health. They were being lauded at black tie functions in luxury hotels. Their brands were being shot in the Evening Standard with Cara, Rita, Taylor and Ellie. But what if you worked with a hot beverage or a biscuit, a bank or a breakfast cereal?  What if you were operating at the margins of culture? What if no one cared?

And yet we have seen in years gone by how gravy can be at the heart of the reconfigured British family, detergent can encourage child development and whisky can redefine aspiration and success. We’ve seen how soap and sanpro brands can speak out for gender equality, knitwear for diversity, yellow fats for the old folk. And I can easily imagine an instant coffee brand creating social networks, a tea brand inspiring mindfulness, a bank reviving local high streets and a shaving brand saving us from hipsters. Finding cultural relevance doesn't have to be difficult. 

I have come to conclude that it’s possible for almost any brand to have cultural currency. Any brand can find a way of participating in the broader social conversation of the day. Indeed I believe this is consistently the optimal positioning strategy: identify relevant cultural change and locate your brand within it. Contemporary brands need to contribute to contemporary life. They need to commentate on it, participate with it, shape it. Because if you can't make yourself relevant, you're irrelevant.

There are too many introverted businesses nowadays: talking to their own heavy users, about their own sector, on their own terms, within their own conventions. I’ve lost count of the number of Clients who consider themselves converts to the new religion of growth-through-penetration. But if we are to take the penetration arguments seriously, then we ought to be reaching out to new communities and new audiences, and locating ourselves around social and cultural change.

As John Bartle used to say, ‘you’ve got to decide whether you’re in the vanguard or in the guard’s van.’

When Dillon passed away, Dad buried him at the end of the back garden by the rockery. Mum wept for days. I always imagined that Dillon found his way to Dog Heaven. He’d had his day. He’d chased his tail. He’d howled at the moon. And he’d made his own very significant contribution to Carroll family culture. He’d found the centre of our attention.

No. 48