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

Strange Town: Alexander McQueen and the Art of Subversion

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, not a form of imprisonment.’
Alexander McQueen.

I recently attended the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m no fashion expert, but I could admire the cut and craft, the elegance and imagination. Quite extraordinary.

It’s been well documented that McQueen was formally trained as a tailor on Savile Row and he worked for some time at the theatrical costumier’s, Berman’s and Nathan’s. His grounding in classical forms and historical styles is evident in his work.

With an exacting eye, McQueen explored period themes such as Regency England, Jacobite Scotland and Imperial Japan. But he also subverted those themes with curious twists and flamboyant turns; with studs, masks, lace and leather; with evocations of love and death. It produces a compelling effect. We are seduced by the elegance, the refinement, the classicism; but at the same time we feel a sense of doubt, darkness and danger. Our expectations are subverted. ‘The time is out of joint.’

McQueen seemed to understand the power of the past to create something entirely current; the potential of the unconscious to supply rich imaginative imagery; the capacity of disruption to manufacture memories. He regarded himself as a romantic, but clearly for him romance was mysterious, mystical and strange.

‘The new always carries with it the sense of violation, of sacrilege. What is dead is sacred; what is new, that is different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive.’
Henry Miller

We may sometimes imagine that we in the communication industry are engaged in subversion: we’re challenging convention, redefining language, re-writing code. But often our subversion is reduced to a bold casting decision, an unfamiliar colour-way, a surprising punch-line.  Surely if we were truly subversive, we’d be challenging at a deeper, more psychological, level.

We may also imagine that communication is the dream business: the alignment of brands with consumers’ dreams and fantasies; the suggestion that a brand might deliver new hopes and aspirations. But if we were serious about dreams, we would recognise that they are far more complex than the golden hayfields, scampering Labradors and smiling blonde children of advertising cliché. Our true fantasies are muddled, awkward and bizarre; our genuine reveries are strange and surreal; our real dreams are next to nightmares.

I have always liked the notion that dreams could, on the one hand, represent the manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties; and, on the other hand, they could be the waste disposal system for the brain. Dreams are at once meaningful and meaningless. And the fact that we cannot distinguish one category of dream from the other is God’s joke.

I read a recent interview with the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. In it he debunked the widely held view that the public of previous centuries were experts in the religious and literary semiotics encoded in the art of their day.

‘It’s often said that in the old days people knew all the stories behind these pictures, that they knew the myths and the whole of Ovid. The more I think about that, the more I think it is completely untrue. They didn’t know. So it was all a little more remote. I don’t think familiarity has ever been a stimulus for museum visitors. Strangeness more often helps with the initial impulse.

This sense that strangeness commands special attention tallies with my own movie memories. The scenes, images and impressions that have endured are often just a little odd: the children with animals’ heads in The Wicker Man, the bandaged nose in Chinatown, the zither theme in The Third Man, the romantic cycle ride in Butch Cassidy, the distant figure in a red anorak in Don’t Look Now…

Some years ago, a piece of research established that the recalled elements of popular advertising were often the quite incidental characters from the margins of the plot: the swan in Boddingtons 'Face Cream', the frog in Sony 'Balls', the big bald bloke with the ball bearings in Dunlop 'Tested for the Unexpected'. These elements were not fundamental to the comprehension of the narrative or the communication of the message. But they struck a chord, left a mark; perhaps precisely because they were not serving any purpose; because they were strange.

I wonder are the worlds of brands and advertising a little too familiar; a little too sane and sensible?

In applying rigorous thought to the creative process, do we leave enough room for the anomaly and abnormality that create enduring memories?

In endeavouring to express the aspirations that drive our consumers, do we properly accommodate the strangeness of their dreams?

Maybe we’d all be better off if we found ourselves in a strange town.

No. 42