“Then there is the fuzzy matter of focus,” Anthony Lane wrote in an article about the Julia Margaret Cameron show at the Met (The New Yorker, 9/2/13). It made me think, not only about the question of pictorial focus, but also about how much pressure the art world places on an artist to make images that conform to its standard of correct focus.
First of all, I have no idea why “tack sharp” became such an important requirement for photography. I have nothing at all against sharpness, nor do I oppose a sober, analytical style of work. I quite like the Dusselfdorf School. The problematic question for me is – Why only that?
One often hears Cameron’s work being dismissed as excessively romantic or irrelevant. The show at the Met, which closes 1/5/14, is beautifully curated and, to my mind, challenges that preconception. Cameron was a strong, endlessly engaged and playful photographer. She struggled within the rigorous confines of the glass plate and wet collodion process, and despite all the limitations of that technique, her portraits have an incontestable immediacy and modernity. When I saw Cameron’s portrait, Cassiopeia, I immediately thought about Rineke Dijkstra’s Tia.
And it’s even more fascinating that both Cameron and Dijkstra showed their images paired with a second shot of the same woman:
The problem people have with Cameron is that she preferred to stop focusing when she arrived at “something which to my eye was very beautiful”. Of course the idea of doing that horrified the more scientific, status quo photographers of her time. To them she replied:
“What is focus — & who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”