Hilary Robinson considers J.M. Cameron at the Portfolio Gallery.


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Pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was often accused of taking out-of-focus pictures. Hilary Robinson finds out why she did.

On 26 November 186-1. Julia Margaret Cameron presented an album of her photographs to Sir John Herschel (astronomer and pioneer of the science of photography) ‘with a grateful memory on7 years of friendship‘. She was 49 and had been making pictures for just eleven months; photography itselfwas only 25 years old. Three years later she updated the album. and the resulting collection of‘)4 prints (the Herschel Album as it is now known) forms the core of the works by her that are still extant. Many of Cameron‘s own prints were dispersed either sold or given to friends and then disappeared; few of her glass negatives are known to exist. Although some of her work was reprinted very early on. it was not done by her. nor to the techniques that she used. nor from the original negatives the prints were re-photographed. The Herschel Album is now kept in the National Museum of Film. Photography and Television in Bradford; the selection of 30 prints that will be shown in the National Portrait Gallery will provide a rare opportunity to see a substantial body of Cameron‘s work in one place a real treat. and already promising to be one ofthe high points ofgallery-going anywhere in Scotland this summer.

One of the reasons for the fame of these photographs is their subjects: the writers and artists who Cameron knew and who sat for her. Some of these images are portraits; in others. the sitters model figures from literature or religious mythology. Julia Jackson appears: she was Cameron's neice. but is now best known for being the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Holman Hunt appears a couple oftimes. as does G.F. Watts and Thomas Carlyle; Tennyson is the most frequent however. often looking distinctly bohemian and. in one picture. resembling like a dirty monk. This was despite prolonged contact with Queen Victoria he was Poet Laureate. in addition to which the Queen had a house on the Isle of Wight. where Tennyson and Cameron were close neighbours.

Many ofCameron's sitters. however. were her friends and family. her maids and local working-class people. and the real reason for

going to see her work is not to see the famous names. Instead. what is most clear is the very particular and highly ambitious vision of a woman who had to contend with horrendous technical difficulties. yet wanted to make work that was deserving of the same consideration as oil painting. It would he understandable for anyone looking at her work now to assume that the soft focus or blurred image and the low lighting were the effects oftechnical problems; but this would ignore the differences between Cameron and other photographers ofthe same decade. and also ignore her choices and descision-making.

Cameron was often accused by contemporary critics of being technically inept in producing ‘out-of-focus‘ prints. This irritated her. Most of her technical worries were over preparing the glass for the negative (pouring a thick mixture of chemicals evenly over the large glass plates. putting them into the camera. and taking the four-minute exposure while they were still wet). over unexpected leaks of light. or over the health risks of the lethal potassium cyanide that she had to use. When focusing. rather than insist on the

‘sharpest‘ image (still a hang-up for photographers today. as for most of the early ones). she instead focused until she considered that the image was at its best. ‘When focusing‘. she wrote. ‘and coming to something which to my eye was very beautiful l stopped there. instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon‘. Often. when one of her photographs appears out of focus. details in the background or foreground are in fact as sharp as anyone could wish. Sometimes the sitter has moved during the long exposure. Additionally. Cameron often deliberately chose very subdued lighting. For her portrait of Herschel. she stated to him that ‘the room cannot be too humble. if it is capable of having all light excluded except that ofone window or one aperture which I will myself cover with a yellow calico. That is all I desire. ' Thus. one of the finest portrait photographs was arranged.

Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron can be seen at the Scottish National Portrait (iallery. Edinburgh, 20 Jul—30 Sept.

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