Celebrating two innovative photographic artists

Today, 11 June, is quite a big day in photographic history – it is on this day that we celebrate the births of two great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 to 26 January 1879) from Great Britain, and the American Jerry Uelsmann (born 11 June 1934).

Cameron and Uelsmann operate in very different photographic domains – while Julia Cameron was a groundbreaking portrait photographer, Uelsmann is known for his fantastical darkroom creations, and is considered the forerunner of the photomontage technique.

Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron's trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.  [Public domain - copyright expired]
Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron’s trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.
[Public domain – copyright expired]

Julia Margaret Cameron was a key figure in the development of the modern portrait style. Her influence in this field is particularly significant if one takes into account that her photographic career only spanned eleven years – she only took up photography at the late age of 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter. She took to the discipline with great vigour and had an obvious knack for photography, quickly becoming a prominent member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her short career she photographed many famous celebrities and historical figures, and she is also known for allegorical works featuring religious and literary themes.

One of the innovations Cameron brought to portrait photography was cropping her portraits much more tightly than was the norm at the time. Another interesting technique she used, was to photograph her subjects intentionally slightly out of focus, and using long exposures, thus creating images that also contained motion blur. While this led some of her contemporaries to ridicule her work, she remained extremely prolific, leaving behind a very comprehensive portrait library for her time.

Besides her technical and artistic innovations, Cameron also brought her innovative nature to bear on the business side of photography – she registered each of her photos with the copyright office, and kept detailed records of all her work. This careful bookkeeping has resulted in a large number of her works surviving today.

While Cameron is an influential figure in portrait photography, her influence only came to bear long after her death – as mentioned before, many of her contemporaries found her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits ridiculous and unacceptable. Things have changed, though, with many claiming her to be one of the portraiture greats – Imogen Cunningham said “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better”, while Getty Images have stated “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.

Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann's photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.
Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann’s photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.

Unlike Julia Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann’s interest in photography started at the much younger age of 14. While still at school he started landing a few minor photography jobs, and after completing his tertiary studies in photography, he took up a job teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960.

From early in his career Uelsmann developed an interest in darkroom image manipulation, creating composite images from multiple negatives. Some of his creations, done using his large archive of negatives, were amazingly intricate, often requiring him to work with multiple enlargers during the same session. Referring to his works as “allegorical surrealist imagery of the unfathomable”, he never cared about the boundaries suggested by the photographic realists of hie time. Instead, he opted to use components of a number of different photographs to create and share the images he saw in his mind, thus developing the photo montage technique to an amazingly advanced technical level.

What made the impact of his work even greater was that he created his photo-fantasies at a time when such montages weren’t at all a common concept – photos were essentially considered realistic documentary interpretations of scenes and events. As such, Uelsmann’s avant grade photographic visuals helped to greatly expand the boundaries of photography as an art form.

To this day, despite the proliferation of digital processing tools and techniques, Uelsmann continues to use traditional equipment and his almost magical darkroom skills have resulted in works of breathtaking intricacy – a visit to his website to look through some of his works from the past decade (and earlier) is well worth your time.

Like Cameron, Uelsmann’s work was initially not looked upon kindly by his contemporaries. Like Cameron, however, Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time and is now being acknowledged for their groundbreaking disregard for the styles, norms and trends of the time – as such playing an important role in advancing the art of photographic.

Both Julia Margaret Cameron and Jerry Uelsmann have succeeded, in very different ways, to move beyond mere photography to create original works of art – in Cameron’s case, vividly personal, yet almost impressionistic portraits, and in Uelsmann’s case, surrealistic visions from the mind of their creator.

Inspiring stuff!

Pinhole photography, creative and addictive

Today, 28 April, is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, an international event to promote and celebrate the art of pinhole photography.

For those who may not know it, a pinhole camera is an extremely basic and simple device with which to take photographs. In essence all it consists of is a lightproof box/container with a very small hole/pinhole to let in light, and a piece of film (or a film roll, in the case of more advanced model) to record the image created by the light entering through the hole.

Various websites exist (see here, here, here and here, for basic examples, or here for very detailed instructions) showing how to make pinhole cameras of varying degrees of complexity. Many can be made at almost zero cost – all it takes is some time and effort. I’ve also seen some really nifty pre-manufactured pinhole photography kits for sale, often through educational toy outlets. Alternatively, a digital version can be created by drilling a hole in your digital SLR’s body cap, covering the hole with tin foil, and making a tiny pinhole in the foil.

The inexactness of composition and exposure makes pinhole photography a very exciting photographic art form. (© All Rights Reserved)
The inexactness of composition and exposure makes pinhole photography a very exciting photographic art form.
(© All Rights Reserved)

One of the most exciting aspects of pinhole photography is that it is not an exact science. It is difficult to determine your exact exposure, and creating a composition is also a bit of a hit and miss affair. Each pinhole camera is unique – no two pinholes will be exactly the same size/shape, the distance between the pinhole and the film will vary, the film may not always be perfectly flat, and there may even be a small amount of light leakage affecting the film. This non-exactness of pinhole photography is what makes it so much fun, and such a uniquely personal experience – you are always guaranteed a few surprises when you have your pinhole film developed.

To create a fairly sharp image, the pinhole in the camera needs to be quite small, which in turn means that not much light is allowed into the pinhole camera. This means the amount of time you leave the pinhole open to take a picture (the shutter speed, basically) also tends to be quite long, making pinhole photography more suited to stationary subjects (for sharp images) or slow moving subjects (for some motion blur). Fast moving subjects are likely to move too fast to be captured, and will either result in excessive blur, or may even end up not captured at all.

In celebration of the day, you can participate by making your own pinhole camera, taking some photos and submitting one image to the Pinhole Day website (see the 2012 Gallery for inspiration.) Perhaps its a bit late for this year, but remember Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day is celebrated every year on 28 April, so now is your chance to start early for next year

Of course you don’t have to contribute to the official website. By immersing yourself into the art of pinhole photography, looking at what others have done, and developing your own unique approach and style, you can soon start building up your own library of original photo art.

Just a word of warning – pinhole photography can be seriously addictive! (But, don’t fret, it’s a healthy obsession!)