Julia Margaret Cameron: working methods
Julia Margaret Cameron made albumen-silver prints from wet collodion glass plate negatives. She was innovative and unconventional in her approach to the technical applications of her medium in order to create images transcending a purely descriptive function of photography. This article looks at some of the ways and reasons why Cameron experimented with image making, explains the photographic processes Cameron used and details an early conservation problem that threatened many of her best negatives.
'At the beginning of this year I first took up photography…& set to work alone & unassisted to see what I could do all thro' the severe month of January I felt my way literally in the dark thro’ endless failures, at last came endless successes!'
- Julia Margaret Cameron letter to Sir John Herschel, 26 February, 1864, Royal Society, London
Though herself marking the portrait of Annie Philpot as 'My very first success' Julia Margaret Cameron had in fact worked with photography before the gift of her camera in December 1863.
Cameron’s earliest knowledge of the process was through correspondence with her friend J.F.W. Herschel. While she was still living in India, Herschel wrote to her about the invention of photography and in 1842 sent her early examples of photographic images – the first she ever saw. From the late 1850s she came into contact with established practitioners, posed for portrait sittings, assembled albums for her family and friends and in the early 1860s even began printing the negatives of other photographers. Joanne Lukitsh makes an important and in-depth study of the work she produced prior to 1864 in Julia Margaret Cameron, The Complete Photographs.
Use of focus
'What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?'
- Julia Margaret Cameron, letter to Sir John Herschel, 31 December, 1864, Heinz Archive and Library, National Portrait Gallery, London
The pictorial effects and use of focus are among the most discussed aspects of the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. Cameron made prints from collodion negatives and her images typically have an out of focus quality. She was criticised by some of her contemporaries for what they considered the technical failure of her work given that the collodian negative could produce images of great clarity and detail.
In Annals of my Glass House (1874) Cameron recognised and fuelled early interest in how and why she started to produce prints stopping short of sharp focus explaining:
'my first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.'
The works she made in the early months of 1864 involved a process of trial and error through which she developed her technical and aesthetic understanding of photography. Though describing her discovery as a 'fluke', this concession in her biographical statement actually reveals Cameron's confidence and belief in her early aesthetic judgements. It also signals her awareness that it was a quality that made her photographs distinctive and different to the work the work of many of her contemporaries.
Helmut Gernsheim, whose book Julia Margaret Cameron (see bibliography) is a pioneering study of her life and work, makes the point that the 'soft' look of her pictures was largely the result of the camera equipment she was using at the time. Gernsheim points to a chromatic aberration in her Jamin lens which had a large aperture and fixed stop which made it impossible to control depth of field and obtain sharp images at the close range she preferred for her subjects. Also as Julian Cox points out in Julia Margaret Cameron, The Complete Photographs (see bibliography) the plates she used were too large for the size of the lens creating a 'falling off' at the edges of the photograph. Her exposure times of three to seven minutes compounded the soft focussing of her images as her subjects were likely to move during the sitting.
By the time she started producing her large scale head studies such as Freddy Gould in 1866 - where Gould’s angelic gaze occupies much of the plate, dissolving into a very softly focused head and shoulders portrait - Cameron had acquired a new Rapid Rectilinear lens that held larger glass plates, corrected for aberrations and with which she could control aperture and depth of field. She had also recognised the importance of focus in achieving the artistic aims of her work.
In 1864 she had written somewhat disheartened to Sir John Herschel of 'that roundness and fullness of form and feature that modelling of flesh & limb which the focus I use only can give tho' condemned as "out of focus".' By 1866 she was confidently referring to this same quality to promote her photographs, writing to Henry Cole of 'my late series of photographs that I intend should electrify you with delight and startle the world…the like have never been produced & never can be surpassed!…Talk of roundness I have it in perfect perfection!'
'I turned my coal-house into my dark room, and a glazed fowl house I had given to my children became my glass house! The hens were liberated, I hope and believe not eaten…all hands and hearts sympathised in my new labour, since the society of hens and chickens was soon changed for that of poets, prophets, painters and lovely maidens.'
- Julia Margaret Cameron, Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Julia Margaret Cameron made albumen silver prints from wet collodion glass plate negatives. This is a complex and exacting process. A small error at any stage of preparing the negative or developing the print can dramatically effect the look of the final photograph and as Mrs Cameron discovered, the permanence of the negative.
Cameron also worried about using dangerous chemicals including cyanide of potassium. Writing to Herschel in March 1864 she notes 'the cyanide of potassium is the most nervous part of the whole process to me. It is such a deadly poison' asking him 'Need I be so very afraid of the cyanide in case of a scratch on my hand?'
An excellent detailed description of Cameron’s working methods using one of only two surviving negatives is provided by Julian Cox in Julia Margaret Cameron, The Complete Photographs (see bibliography).
Making a Negative
First the sheet of glass is cleaned. Cameron’s first camera held glass plates roughly 12 x 10 inch, her second camera, purchased in 1866, held 15 x 12 inch plates. A solution of collodion (gun cotton dissolved in ether and alcohol mixed with salts) was then poured evenly over the plate and made sensitive to light in the dark room with a coating of silver nitrate salts.
The damp plate was then ready to be placed in the camera. Cameron used a standard sliding-box camera and a French made Jamin lens with a fixed aperture of f3.6 and a focal length of roughly 12 inches. After removing the lens cap the exposure time required was between three and seven minutes.
The glass plate was then taken back to the dark room still damp (thus 'wet plate' or 'wet collodion' negative) and a solution of developer was poured over it. The negative was washed and then bathed in hypo or cyanide to fix the image and remove unexposed silver salts. It was washed again and finally coated with varnish to enable multiple prints to be made from the plate without damaging it.
Making Prints from the Negative
The albumen print, introduced by L.D. Blanquart-Evard in 1850, was essentially an improvement on the salted paper process and the most popular method of making photographic prints from the mid 19th century until the development of gelatin dry plate printing in the 1880s. Thin plain paper was coated with a layer of egg white containing salt. The albumenised paper was sensitised with silver nitrate solution and left to dry before use. Contact prints were made using a frame to sandwich together the negative and the paper in daylight, the image appearing or 'coming out' through the effect of light on the albumen paper. Thus the size of the negative generally determined the size of the print. The print was then toned to make it permanent and to add colour.
Experiments in Printing
'I get into difficulties & I cannot see my way out of them from ignorance of the scientific causes of those failures miscalled "accidents".'
- Julia Margaret Cameron, letter to Sir John Herschel, 20 March (1864), Royal Society, London
Julia Margaret Cameron was primarily concerned with 'picture making' rather than using photography to make a straight record of people, events or places. She was adventurous, innovative and unpredictable in the methods she employed to compose her photographs, the expressive power of a composition over riding her concerns for technical perfection.
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection contains many fascinating prints in which we see Mrs Cameron pushing the boundaries of photographic process well beyond the exposure taken with her camera. Cameron frequently scratched and drew into her negatives (as seen in the church windows etched into the image of Julia Jackson), scraped away emulsion to delete unwanted figures, cut prints to the shape that she desired and even made composite prints from her negatives to suggest a new meaning or reading of the photograph.
The images below show some examples of her unorthodox treatment of negatives and prints. Julian Cox, Associate Curator of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles kindly examined the prints and it is from his analysis that the following information is drawn, particularly in relation to 'Hosanna'.
Madonna and Two Children 1864
Cameron has used pen and sepia ink on the print (which has smudged) to draw in and intensify the eyebrow and eyes of the Madonna figure (Mary Kellaway).
To make the composite photograph Cameron needed to assemble the separate pieces of plate together in a printing frame and could then make an albumen print in the normal way. For Alice Keown (lower left corner) who is very out of focus, Mrs Cameron may have used a negative printed in reverse. Cameron would have needed to devise a method of securing the separate pieces of plate together in the frame or been extremely sensitive to movement while printing.
The Mariner’s Wife 1864-65
As she did here, Julia Margaret Cameron often scraped away large segments of collodion from her negatives to alter a composition or remove unwanted figures or damaged areas of emulsion. It is not known why Mrs Cameron made this change to the plate. An alternate print of the same subjects exists in the Lindsay Album which shows no signs of deterioration or technical fault.
The seam like crack running across these two identical images makes them appear as composite prints. However, the hair line present along the edge of the child in the foreground of both is probably a fracture to the single plate not the point of joining of a second negative. The much darker tone in the top half of the second version of the print is also deceptive but does also not indicate a composite image. Probably the later of the two, Cameron may have dealt with printing it in separate halves due to the damaged nature of the negative. The straight line running horizontally across this photograph implies she used some kind of tape to mask off the areas thus ensuring a clean edge between the two.
'you will see in the Dream the commencement of this cruel calamity…a honeycomb crack extending over the picture appearing at any moment and beyond my power to arrest.' Julia Margaret Cameron in a letter to Sir Henry Cole, 12 June 1869, National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum
The Dream is one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s most sensitive and evocative photographs. The simply posed profile of Mary Hillier demonstrates her skill in manipulating form, light and focus to create expressive and compelling images.
The title refers to a verse by John Milton ‘On his deceased Wife’ (about 1658), which tells of a lovely but fleeting and ultimately disappointing vision of his beloved returning to life in a dream. To strengthen, or perhaps create, the connection between the literary source and the composition, Cameron inscribed the first line of the poem, ‘Me thought I saw my late espoused saint’, on some versions of the print.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s fingerprints remain in perpetuity on the photograph. The physical evidence of the hand of the artist acts as a kind of signature. The two obvious black smudges that appear at the bottom right-hand side of the print seem not to have bothered her, nor altered the opinion of those who saw it. She made numerous prints from the marked plate and the painter G. F. Watts described the image as ‘quite divine’.
Far more troubling to Cameron was a sudden deterioration of her negatives, causing what she called a ‘honeycomb crack’. This can be seen as the fine pattern of lines spreading across the veil of Mary Hillier. It also appeared in many of her most prized negatives including ‘the life sized head’ of the astronomer Sir John Herschel, and the works Christabel and The Guardian Angel.
In 1869 she sent a print of The Dream to Henry Cole, Director of the South Kensington Museum, with a letter expressing her concern with the fault. It had not appeared in her earlier work but that year alone cracking had affected 45 of her negatives. Although by this date Cameron had made significant advances in her technical knowledge of photography, she did not know why the cracking occurred and was unable to control it.
In her letter to Cole, she regretted that the 'chemicals supplied to me are beyond my power and prove fatally perishable'. She went on to surmise that 'a change in the manufacture of varnish & collodion only explains the change to me'. She also says that she had sought advice from the Photographic Society, where she presented the case to a large group of members, but 'every one of the most practised photographers gave me a different reason for this fatal accident to negatives'.
Julian Cox, in his study of Cameron’s process and working methods (Julia Margaret Cameron, The Complete Photographs), outlines the response of the members of the Photographic Society who thought the sea air at her home on the Isle of Wight may have caused the problem. They advised Cameron to wrap her negatives in paper rather than storing them in boxes and recommended she use soot to fill the damaged areas of the negative. This would allow her to continue to print from the plate without cracks appearing. For a more recent explanation, Cox consulted contemporary practitioners working with the wet collodion process. They found the problem is caused at the stage of developing the negative, when the photographer fails to completely wash the ‘hypo’ (fixer) from the plate. This then attracts moisture and leads to cracking.
Cameron continued to struggle with the problem, describing 'that insidious honeycomb tracery' in a letter to Herschel in 1870. She had resolved to Cole to 'print as actively as I can whilst my precious negative is yet good [and] to try to get the portraits I have taken of our greatest men engraved'. Before she left England for Ceylon in 1875, Cameron entered into an agreement with the Autotype Company to have carbon prints made of a group of her photographs.