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Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Fri Jun 01, 2018 12:19 pm
by minniev
Introduction
I confess I had never heard of Julia Margaret Cameron until last week when Steve posted this link viewtopic.php?f=90&t=3987. I was astounded at her work and knew I wanted to post this for the June Masters’ discussion.

Julia Cameron was a self-taught British photographer working in the 1860’s and 70’s. She did not keep a commercial studio but photographed in her own home and gardens. She made no effort to follow the photographic norms of the day, disdained sharp focus and standard Victorian poses. Her aspiration, she claimed, was “to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.” That, I thought, was an amazing artist’s statement for a woman photographer in the mid-1800s.

Her photographs were not universally admired, especially by fellow photographers. The Photographic Journal, reviewing her submissions to the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1865, reported: “Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities. A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practise. In these pictures, all that is good in photography has been neglected and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited. We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art.” The Illustrated London News countered, describing her portraits as “the nearest approach to art, or rather the most bold and successful applications of the principles of fine-art to photography.” Wilhelm Vogel reported the stir that her photographs provoked the following year in Berlin, where they won Cameron the gold medal: “Those large unsharp heads, spotty backgrounds, and deep opaque shadows looked more like bungling pupils’ work than masterpieces. And for this reason many photographers could hardly restrain their laughter, and mocked at the fact that such photographs had been given a place of honour. … But, little as these pictures moved the photographers who only looked for sharpness and technical qualities in general, all the more interested were the artists … [who] praised their artistic value, which is so outstanding that technical shortcomings hardly count.”

Please review some more of her work, and explore the links below. Then determine which camp you’re in as you critique this image, Beatrice. In this photograph, modeled on a painting by Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni, May Prinsep plays the role of Beatrice Cenci, a sixteenth-century Roman woman whose sad tale of rape, revenge, and execution was retold in a nineteenth-century play by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Cameron’s portraits of women often depended upon literary, artistic, historical, or biblical allusion for broader commercial appeal.

Questions to help guide your thinking:
1. Beatrice was made in 1866. Does that surprise you? Is there anything about this image that seems unusual for its era?
2. Does the soft focus detract from or add to the effectiveness of this image?
3. What to you think of the technique? The lighting? The pose? The flaws? The emotional aspect? Does this image have impact? Why or why not?
4. What do you see from Julia Cameron’s work that might influence modern photographers?
5. Was she successful, in your view, in reaching the goal (above) that she set for herself?
6. If you’ve made images that you feel may embody some of Cameron’s principles, please post an image and explain. Alternatively, link to some modern photographer’s work that has similarities and explain.

Links for Further Study
https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/camr/hd_camr.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Margaret_Cameron
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesig ... xhibitions
http://www.atgetphotography.com/The-Pho ... meron.html
http://www.anothermag.com/art-photograp ... et-heroine
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ya7XWByKks

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Fri Jun 01, 2018 2:08 pm
by PietFrancke
"We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art.”

Yeah right... Her portrait exhibits characteristics present in paintings. Her goal seems to be more about capturing the spirit of the subject than the reality. And photography has apparently always been the tool pretending that reality can be owned and stored in a box. I will do my homework and come back to this topic, but my gut says that this is an ancient argument about Art vs. Anti-Art.

I use the word Anti-Art to describe the soulless collecting of information as the primary goal - to be contrasted against the artist's strategy. I think the artist's strategy circles around the idea of "area of interest". Keeping and showing only that which helps the image tell the story that is intended to be told.

Granted, there have been painters that offer super detail and canvases full of detail... I think still, it must somehow be about telling the story. When the story is told, an artistic goal can be said to have been achieved.

A camera, a pen, a typewriter, a paintbrush... these are but tools. The endless confusion between a tool and what must be done with a tool is a sickening thing. Her critics I think had greater care about holding up their own prestige than serving in the interest of art. I think that when someone speaks for the interests of art, or tells us what God wants, or tells us what is best for our Nation, then it rapidly becomes time to start doing your own thinking.

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Fri Jun 01, 2018 2:47 pm
by St3v3M
PietFrancke wrote:
Fri Jun 01, 2018 2:08 pm
"We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art.”

Yeah right... Her portrait exhibits characteristics present in paintings. Her goal seems to be more about capturing the spirit of the subject than the reality. And photography has apparently always been the tool pretending that reality can be owned and stored in a box. I will do my homework and come back to this topic, but my gut says that this is an ancient argument about Art vs. Anti-Art.

I use the word Anti-Art to describe the soulless collecting of information as the primary goal - to be contrasted against the artist's strategy. I think the artist's strategy circles around the idea of "area of interest". Keeping and showing only that which helps the image tell the story that is intended to be told.

Granted, there have been painters that offer super detail and canvases full of detail... I think still, it must somehow be about telling the story. When the story is told, an artistic goal can be said to have been achieved.

A camera, a pen, a typewriter, a paintbrush... these are but tools. The endless confusion between a tool and what must be done with a tool is a sickening thing. Her critics I think had greater care about holding up their own prestige than serving in the interest of art. I think that when someone speaks for the interests of art, or tells us what God wants, or tells us what is best for our Nation, then it rapidly becomes time to start doing your own thinking.
I too noticed the language of the day "... A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practise. ..." and want to come back to this again, but may I first say WELL DONE!

Everyone has their own opinions, and we value that, and I've read wonderful assessments on art in the past but this by far is the best I've ever read. It's honest, laying bare the essentials we strive for, and inspires me to be a better artist. Thank you! S-

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Fri Jun 01, 2018 8:56 pm
by minniev
PietFrancke wrote:
Fri Jun 01, 2018 2:08 pm
"We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art.”

Yeah right... Her portrait exhibits characteristics present in paintings. Her goal seems to be more about capturing the spirit of the subject than the reality. And photography has apparently always been the tool pretending that reality can be owned and stored in a box. I will do my homework and come back to this topic, but my gut says that this is an ancient argument about Art vs. Anti-Art.

I use the word Anti-Art to describe the soulless collecting of information as the primary goal - to be contrasted against the artist's strategy. I think the artist's strategy circles around the idea of "area of interest". Keeping and showing only that which helps the image tell the story that is intended to be told.

Granted, there have been painters that offer super detail and canvases full of detail... I think still, it must somehow be about telling the story. When the story is told, an artistic goal can be said to have been achieved.

A camera, a pen, a typewriter, a paintbrush... these are but tools. The endless confusion between a tool and what must be done with a tool is a sickening thing. Her critics I think had greater care about holding up their own prestige than serving in the interest of art. I think that when someone speaks for the interests of art, or tells us what God wants, or tells us what is best for our Nation, then it rapidly becomes time to start doing your own thinking.
Your response is an eloquent essay in its own right. Like you, I was quickly reminded, when reading her critics, of critics we have all encountered in the current day who are quite certain that theirs is the one true method by which photography should be used. Even though I'd not even heard of Julia Cameron before, I became a fan at first look - her use of light and expression seemed so out of sync with the posed figures in most photography of the 1860s - stoic expressions, stiff bodies - captures that I would not think of as art.

And yes I agree that trying to stuff Art or God or Democracy into a tight box is stifling and troublesome, leaving little room for the soul.

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Sat Jun 02, 2018 3:08 am
by Matt Quinn
".. sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.”

No surprise, this resonated with me. Poetry rests on metaphor, simile, sound, emotion and image, rarely describing subjects precisely since that is not its purpose. The photo, Beatrice, does not pretend to show the real person, but, with some background information made available, allows the viewer to move beyond the image and begin to understand the intent of the photographer.

Another school of criticism, however, claims that a work of art should stand on its own without any reference to intent, context or narrative.

I like to combine both; and I compare this photo to current portrait, landscape and street photography which capture moments while Beatrice reveals a soul.

Thanks Minnie. I will search out her other work. Much to learn; this helps a great deal. Thanks. Matt

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Mon Jun 04, 2018 10:22 pm
by minniev
Matt Quinn wrote:
Sat Jun 02, 2018 3:08 am
".. sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.”

No surprise, this resonated with me. Poetry rests on metaphor, simile, sound, emotion and image, rarely describing subjects precisely since that is not its purpose. The photo, Beatrice, does not pretend to show the real person, but, with some background information made available, allows the viewer to move beyond the image and begin to understand the intent of the photographer.

Another school of criticism, however, claims that a work of art should stand on its own without any reference to intent, context or narrative.

I like to combine both; and I compare this photo to current portrait, landscape and street photography which capture moments while Beatrice reveals a soul.

Thanks Minnie. I will search out her other work. Much to learn; this helps a great deal. Thanks. Matt
Thanks for sharing, Matt. And your impression was similar to mind. What struck me about this image immediately was that it was something more than a graphic recording of the subject’s appearance. The photographer had created an image that conveyed spirit and emotion to the viewer, which was not customary in the era Cameron worked in.

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Tue Jun 05, 2018 4:47 am
by St3v3M
Art should make you think, and question everything you know. S-

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Tue Jun 05, 2018 1:43 pm
by minniev
St3v3M wrote:
Tue Jun 05, 2018 4:47 am
Art should make you think, and question everything you know. S-
Where have I seen that before? :)

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2018 2:32 pm
by Charles Haacker
I really like what Piet said:
A camera, a pen, a typewriter, a paintbrush... these are but tools. The endless confusion between a tool and what must be done with a tool is a sickening thing. Her critics I think had greater care about holding up their own prestige than serving in the interest of art. I think that when someone speaks for the interests of art, or tells us what God wants, or tells us what is best for our Nation, then it rapidly becomes time to start doing your own thinking.
I am probably shallow. I try to avoid overthinking it, some of it anyway. I like what I like and I think I have eclectic tastes. I've known of Julia Margaret Cameron for some time and always loved her stuff. I've also always respected the work of probably all of the early photographers for the simple fact that they photographed at all (think William Henry Jackson in the Yellowstone with wet plates)! What Cameron was doing was almost equally difficult because she was photographing living subjects but not clamping them down so they couldn't move. Her exposures had to be long and her models had to be incredibly patient. She valued the inevitable subject movement for the softness and character it gave. I remember when we bought our studio that the previous owner smoked like chimney all over the place. There was smoke stain on all his lenses, taking and enlarging; he said it made his portraits soft, and from his perspective softer was better. (I cleaned all the lenses anyway.)

Suffice to say that I think Cameron did incredible work with nearly impossible tools. She had an illustrator's vision and figured out her own unique technique. Her learn-by-doing approach freed her from the rigid constraints her critics wanted to tie her down with.

Re: Monthly Masters' Discussion - June 2018 - Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice"

Posted: Wed Jun 06, 2018 2:50 pm
by minniev
Charles Haacker wrote:
Wed Jun 06, 2018 2:32 pm
I really like what Piet said:
A camera, a pen, a typewriter, a paintbrush... these are but tools. The endless confusion between a tool and what must be done with a tool is a sickening thing. Her critics I think had greater care about holding up their own prestige than serving in the interest of art. I think that when someone speaks for the interests of art, or tells us what God wants, or tells us what is best for our Nation, then it rapidly becomes time to start doing your own thinking.
I am probably shallow. I try to avoid overthinking it, some of it anyway. I like what I like and I think I have eclectic tastes. I've known of Julia Margaret Cameron for some time and always loved her stuff. I've also always respected the work of probably all of the early photographers for the simple fact that they photographed at all (think William Henry Jackson in the Yellowstone with wet plates)! What Cameron was doing was almost equally difficult because she was photographing living subjects but not clamping them down so they couldn't move. Her exposures had to be long and her models had to be incredibly patient. She valued the inevitable subject movement for the softness and character it gave. I remember when we bought our studio that the previous owner smoked like chimney all over the place. There was smoke stain on all his lenses, taking and enlarging; he said it made his portraits soft, and from his perspective softer was better. (I cleaned all the lenses anyway.)

Suffice to say that I think Cameron did incredible work with nearly impossible tools. She had an illustrator's vision and figured out her own unique technique. Her learn-by-doing approach freed her from the rigid constraints her critics wanted to tie her down with.
Great points about how she managed to avoid the conventions of the day and pursue a style uniquely her own. I do tend to admire those folk who walked their own path in the early days of photography. It is sometimes hard even now to defend doing something that is outside the bounding box without drawing lightning bolts from certain groups of photographers. Seldom does a day pass when I don't read someone somewhere insisting that photography is not art, or decrying post processing. For me, photography is such a big tent, there is room for all manner of work within its boundaries.