Unreal Nature

August 2, 2017

The Aiming

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… She left excessive traces of her sticky desires throughout the domestic sphere of her house and studio, as well as in the passionate spaces of her photographs.

This is from Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… critics and historians who have lauded her [Julia Margaret Cameron’s] aesthetic achievement have puzzled over the role of haphazardness in her work. Cameron invited, preserved, and defended signs of sloppiness and chance in her photography when other serious practitioners were seeking to eliminate them. Whereas Talbot emphasized the accidental encounter, Cameron highlighted the play of chance in the optical, chemical, and material processes of photography. In doing so, she brilliantly negotiated a host of contradictory Victorian commitments.

The puzzle of Cameron’s haphazard ways is not new. Writers in her day routinely remarked on the blemishes she abided. Although Cameron used up-to-date processes to make wet-plate collodion glass negatives and albumen prints, she showed scant concern for the forms of technical mastery that almost all professional photographers deemed essential to their craft.

… Whereas most portrait photographers of her day used ample overhead lighting to produce a sharp image, Cameron preferred the chiaroscuro created by angled and restricted sources of light. Often working in a relatively dim space, she opened up her camera’s aperture to let in more light, but this severely limited her depth of field. … Cameron also refused to employ headrests or other devices to help sitters remain still during her exposures, which despite her wide aperture remained long due to the restricted lighting.

… Most curious yet, sharp focus is often reserved for areas that pictorial convention would have deemed of secondary importance. For example, in a photograph entitled A Dantesque Vision, the face of the model (Lady Elcho) is luminescent and indistinct, while the bark of the tree against which she leans is rendered in exact detail. In numerous portraits, whether made indoors or outdoors, the area of clearest focus represents clothing or vegetation rather than the subject’s face. Although a preference for soft focus was not uncommon among Victorian photographers of artistic pretension, this arbitrary allocation of focus was bizarre.

Whereas writers on Cameron’s work once tended to chastise her for poor technique, they now often assign her glitches a positive value. [Julian] Cox, for example, has argued that Cameron “was not afraid to reveal the exigencies of her own labor, as though leaving traces of her hand convincingly demonstrated that her work was made very consciously and by an artist rather than a machine.” This gloss touches on vital paradoxes at work in Cameron’s practice, whereby accidents come to signify ambition and defects to signify distinction. By bringing forth these paradoxes, her photography took on a wayward originality.

… In [a] letter to [John] Herschel she [Cameron] asks: “What is focus — and who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?” Cameron audaciously presumes to establish photography and its standards anew.

… The ideal pictures at which Cameron aimed were perhaps less important than the aiming itself. As one writer noted at the time, her “out of focus” photographs “give the hope that something higher than mechanical success is attainable by the camera.” Her photographs were arguably all about giving viewers that hope.

Cameron’s decision to work with the new wet-plate process contributed to the complex modernism of her practice.

… Using technical processes associated with clear opticality, Cameron produced pictures redolent of an emotive, overly liquid, out-of-control vision.

… The domestic authority of the Victorian woman stemmed from her ability to regulate her desire and thus restrain the tendency in the modern era for wants to run rampant. It was through her that the domestic sphere was to tame the instinctual drives and rapacious inclinations of market life. Cameron, however, strewed her domestic space with signs of her irrepressible passion.

[line break added] In “Annals,” she recalls retaining the “habit of running into the dining room with my wet pictures,” which “stained such an immense quantity of table linen with nitrate of silver, indelible stains, that I should have been banished from any less indulgent household.” She left excessive traces of her sticky desires throughout the domestic sphere of her house and studio, as well as in the passionate spaces of her photographs.


Julia Margaret Cameron, A Dantesque Vision, 1865

My most recent previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.

-Julie

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