Imperfections: The work of Julia Margaret Cameron

British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879), was 48 years old when she received her first camera and her career as a photographer lasted only 11 years. Her talent, however, left her known as one the greatest photographers in history. Still, many of Cameron’s contemporaries considered her work to be inept, for it was blurry, smudged and scratched, and instead they believed that the best photography should be about technical perfections superseding all artistic intent. Cameron, however, defied such conventions and insisted on the view of photography as art through her production of dreamy photographs that evoked a unique artistry still influential to this day.                                                                                                  Like apparitions caught in movement, lost in shadows, ready to dissolve, the figures in Julia Margaret Cameron’s work conjure imperfections, vulnerability and honesty, without quite undermining formality. The ghostly presences are summoned deliberately with the use of soft focus, long exposures times, shallow depths and low lighting, all of which combined with stains from chemical abuse, fingers prints, smudges and scratches, produce an aura of essence, of figures not quite transfixed in time and place, becoming familiar and intimate to generations of viewers. The imperfect photographs guarantee a certain authenticity—the way Cameron approached her subjects was, the way we take our portraits now: with affinity and immediacy and by someone who treats the camera as “a living thing” rather than as an instrument of precise technology and perfection.

With an extreme soft-focus and extensive smudging across the photograph, the young woman begins to blend in with the imperfections of the image creating an aura of movement.
Cameron often deployed dark shadows for dramatic effect so that some of the subjects radiate light while others emanate from or dissolve into darkness creating ghost like figures in her photos, caught in moments of entrance and disappearance.
This photograph shows an example of Cameron’s unorthodox treatment of prints specifically in relation to undefined edges that have an effect of spilling over. The photograph in such a way begins to look as if it melting along with the figures within it.
With a shadow to Tennyson’s left, most likely evoked through scratches and long exposure times, there is, again, a sense of movement in the subject, evoking an awareness of transience, of time passing by, both literally and metaphorically.
Julia Margaret Cameron often wrote to her old friend J. F. Herschel about her artistic anxieties and what her colleagues thought about her. She stated in one letter “I get into difficulties & I cannot see my way out of them from ignorance of the scientific causes of those failures miscalled "accidents” 20 March (1864), Royal Society, London. When Cameron found an opportunity to photograph Herschel, she brought all her equipment to his home and insisted on washing and fluffing up his white hair, playing with shadows and making him look on the outside as he felt on the inside.
With its radical cropping and intense, hazy close-ups, this photograph is an example of the unconventional techniques that earned Cameron the disapproval of photography critics.
This photographer is another example of Cameron experimenting with the film she produced. Here half of the image is almost completely lost and the subject is almost completely blurry. Cameron frequently scratched and drew into her negatives and scraped away emulsion to delete unwanted figures and scenes.
The model’s features are clear enough to present a striking image, but they are not rendered in the sort of overly sharp contours that might cause us to zoom in on details like the scientific photographs of the time sought to evoke. Likewise, nor do the clothes of the girl consist of an easily definable style. Instead, it is the photographs ambiguity and lack of form that suggest some sort of universal covering which laps into the background in indeterminate folds.
Cameron interpreted shades of grey, the shadows, the lights, the small features on her subjects faces, especially on those of older men. She emphasized their faces, lit them dramatically, and made her subjects take up as much space in the photograph as possible.
All these smudges around the face act as a visual magnet, and we as viewers are almost forced to zoom in to the face, to the eyes of the girl, to the point where we seem to perceive something behind them. By allowing focus and light to play back and forth across the model’s face, Cameron invests it with a living quality, a kind of vitality, connecting the model with viewer.
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