BLUR IN ENGLISH PHOTOGRAPHY
OF THE 19TH C.
Mémoire rédigé en anglais
Sous la direction du Professeur François Brunet
Master « Arts et Culture Visuelle dans les pays anglophones »
Session de Juin 2006
Thanks to: François Brunet, Michel Frizot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gustave Le Gray, Roger Fenton, Charles Nègre, Sally Mann, Johannes Vermeer, Steven Soderbergh, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Diane Reeves, Roland Barthes, André Rouillé, Beaumont Newhall, Sarah Hodgson, Carole Turzanski, the Puech Club, Vincent Pasquier, Mum, my goldfishes Zigotto and Zigomard, my Polaroid, computer, dictionaries and scanner.
« Pour moi, j’émets le vœu que la photographie, au lieu de tomber dans le domaine de l’industrie, du commerce, rentre dans celui de l’art. C’est là sa seule, sa véritable place, et c’est dans cette voie que je chercherai toujours à la faire progresser. C’est aux hommes qui s’attachent à son progrès de se pénétrer de cette idée. »
Gustave Le Gray, 1850
 Gustave Le Gray, Traité pratique de photographie, 1850-1852, quoted in Sylvie Aubenas (dir.) Gustave Le Gray, 1820-1884, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallimard, 2002, p.44
In 1827, in France, Nicéphore Niépce’s experiments led him to produce the very first image in the world called View from the Window at Le Gras. In 1839, François Arago, secretary of the Academy of Sciences and a member of the Chamber of Deputies of the French government announced the discovery of a means to produce images with a camera. The newspaper La Gazette de France reported, “M. Daguerre has found the way to fix the images which paint themselves within a camera obscura”. Meanwhile, in England, William Henry Fox Talbot, a scientist and mathematician, claimed to record the effects of light on pieces of paper. He showed samples of his work to the Royal Institution in London. The creation of an image consisted in placing a susceptible paper in a camera, let light come in, and finally stop the action of the light on the paper by using chemicals. The photographic process which eventually led to the physical creation of a print was both discovered in France and in England. That’s the way history of photography started, in a competition.
As a mechanical way to produce images, the invention of photography in 1839 introduced 19TH century society to a new age, namely the age of the machine. Not only was it the age of the machine but it was also the age of reproduction. As a consequence of the invention of this new medium, people rushed to make their portraits and collected photographs. Newspapers were now illustrated. Publicity developed. A market for photography emerged. Painting and drawing were no more the only means to produce images. Industrialized society, democratisation and scientific progress initiated both a feeling of fear and confidence in the future. British society of the 19TH century found itself divided on the question of progress. However, in the 1830s, the introduction of railways and the steam locomotive revolutionized public transport. Yet, while France experienced hard times through the advent of various political systems from 1830 with Louis-Philippe to 1870 and the third Republic, not to mention a war against Germany from 1870 to 1871; England, on the contrary, as Victoria became Queen of England in 1837, settled into prosperity.
Within sixty years, English photography gained recognition and international respect. From Victor Hugo’s admiration for Julia Margaret Cameron’s prints to American photographers’ desire to become members of the British society called the Linked Ring Brotherhood, English photography aroused curiosity, enthusiasm, envy and sometimes disappointment.
In the period I propose to study, which basically starts from 1840, with the invention of the calotype process by William H. Fox Talbot, to approximately 1918, which corresponds to the end of Pictorialism and the First World War, I will try to analyse the use of blur in English photography. Besides, in order to contrast this analysis and reveal the photographic enjoyment, I will frequently compare photographs to paintings and study their similarities, differences and specific features.
As a matter of fact, we still nowadays use the words “blur”, “fuzzy”, “out of focus” or “soft focus” (in French, “le flou artistique”) to describe the artistic quality of blurred images. Moreover, we instinctively associate blurred images with art or quite the opposite, with poor photography. Where does that come from?
To better understand the use of blur in English photography, I will first study the general context of its appearance. In other words, how and why did the blur occur in the English practices of photography? To answer this question I will take the examples of English and French photography, as they were major opponents in the discovery and improvements of photographic processes. In this section, I will also present the crisis of representation that photography initiated. Then, I will introduce two supporters of the practice of photography according to the artistic genre.
In a second part, I will distinguish two aspects in the interpretation of the use of blur. First and foremost, I will describe an empirical blur, that is to say, photographers that took blurred pictures to communicate a general aesthetic, express a vision or pleasure in creating an image. Then, I will focus my attention on a more theoretical blur. Indeed, the use of blur also allowed photographers to draw up theories and principles around its properties.
In a third part, I will finally study the evolution of the blur. I will try to demonstrate how blur became an obsession for some photographers and prevented them to evolve. Then, I will show that blurred photographs can also derive from a documentary practice of photography. This last argument actually goes against all the endeavour of the amateur photographers of the 19TH century but the parallel has to be drawn so as to demonstrate that, on the whole, blur cannot be categorized or be the property of one particular practice.
 Gustave Le Gray, Traité pratique de photographie, 1850-1852, quoted in Sylvie Aubenas (dir.) Gustave Le Gray, 1820-1884, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallimard, 2002, p. 44
 “The First News Accounts of the Daguerreotype, January 6, 1839”, 1839, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 17
To understand how the use of blur was introduced in English photography, it is necessary to present the different photographic processes of the 19th century. As a matter of fact, the various uses of these photographic processes brought about various practices. As opposed to a major practice which was mostly commercial and scientific, the use of blur was in fact legitimated by a minor practice of photography that one could call artistic. Since photography was initially a mechanical process, the distinction between the two was difficult to make and created a malaise.
It was in France that a photographic malaise was the most conspicuous and that the crisis of representation was the most representative. Unlike England, the purchase of the licence of the daguerreotype process by the French government made it easier to produce daguerreotypes than calotypes, over which Talbot held a firm grip. The daguerreotype process was made public and spread for the sake of human progress whereas in England, the calotype process was in the hands of one man. As a result, from 1840 to 1855, the photographic impulse was French rather than English. Though the calotype would eventually overcome the daguerreotype process, it was not until 1854 that England found its practice of photography liberated.
To clarify the situation and understand how photography was split over its role in 19th c. society, I will firstly analyse the English and French situations, and frequently use the example of France which appears to be much more striking than the English one. Secondly, I will introduce two British supporters of the introduction of art, and subsequently the use of blur, in photographic practices, present their respective views and expose their differences.
1. Photography: a document?
Photographic processes were constantly evolving. Thus, practices evolved. One can say that photography was born and re-born thanks to its processes and applications. To understand perfectly the use of blur in English photography during the 19th century, it is important to underline the evolution of these processes and practices. In fact, if at the beginnings there was only one way possible for photography, that is to say the document, the strict rendering of the real; quickly after the invention, photographic processes and practices were soon diverted by some photographers and led photography to another way, art. Although it was and is still sometimes difficult to distinguish between both practices, and in particular when professional photographers were also artists like French photographers Gustave Le Gray or Nadar for instance, it is relevant to demonstrate that photography as a potential art was not obvious for the people of that time; and that it took time, maybe about fifty to sixty years, to establish photography officially as an art.
Hippolyte Bayard’s process aside, two major photographic processes were discovered at the end of the 1830s, almost simultaneously; the French process by Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) and the English process by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). Yet, they were ultimately different. The daguerreotype produced a picture on a metal plate, usually brass covered with a thin silver layer. The calotype – also called Talbotype – first produced a negative image on a piece of paper – the ‘latent image’ – which had to be placed side by side onto another piece of paper to produce the final positive print.
A metal plate faced a paper print. A daguerreotype was actually more accurate and sharper than a calotype since going through the ‘latent image’ accentuated the loss of information in the image. The outlines of a calotype were soft but not exactly sharp. Nevertheless, if the general aspect of a daguerreotype felt to be cold as a metal plate suggests, the calotype’s soft lines were similar to drawing. Actually, the first attempts that Talbot made before discovering the calotype process were named Photogenic Drawings.
In his book entitled La photographie, historian of photography André Rouillé observed,
cette disparité technique entre le métal et le papier s’adosse, dès le milieu
du XIXe siècle, une série de clivages entre des catégories de praticiens (les
« gens de métier » et les artistes), entre des usages divergents du
procédé (pour la science ou l’art, le métier ou la création, l’‘utilité’ ou la
‘curiosité’), entre des institutions distinctes (l’Académie des sciences et
l’Académie des beaux-arts), entre des acteurs rivaux (Daguerre et Bayard,
Disdéri et Le Gray, etc.) entre des orientations contraires (le profit et la
qualité), et, inséparablement, entre des choix esthétiques antagonistes (le
net, le flou).”
The birth of both the daguerreotype and calotype initiated two practises of photography, setting a gap between the two. In the same way, historian of photography Michel Frizot stated,
que le daguerréotype devient un procédé maniable dont s’emparent les praticiens
ambulants, le calotype, plus long, plus minutieux, plus aléatoire, plus cher
aussi, paraît destiné à la ‘belle image’ des cabinets de curiosités, que l’on
conservera comme une estampe ancienne, à l’abri de la lumière.”
The calotype was both a craft and an art. Its practise was difficult, demanding both knowledge of chemistry and skills. Calotypists like Roger Fenton, Frederick Scott Archer or William J. Newton gathered to talk about the technique and exchange tips in The Calotype Club, a society created in 1847. Contrary to the daguerreotype, the calotype was in the hands of an elite set, called amateur photographers. As such, English photography did not extend as rapidly as the French one. Michel Frizot described this handicap as follows,
cela s’ajoute le paiement obligatoire d’une redevance à Talbot par toute
personne utilisant son brevet, c'est-à-dire pratiquant le calotype, et ce dans
tous les pays. Tandis que le daguerréotype, ‘donné au monde’, est d’usage
totalement libre, ce handicap entravera la diffusion du calotype (…).”
In fact, it was not until year 1854 that English photography and practice got freed from Talbot’s grip. In 1854 Talbot saw his case dismissed by the court as he brought a suit against Frederick Scott Archer. Archer’s collodion process on glass plate, which Talbot claimed to be using the calotype principle of negative/positive, liberated the photographic processes in England.
In the beginning, while photography was largely promoted in France, photography remained sort of hidden and the privilege of an elite in England. Although artistic practices of photography existed in France with photographers like Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq or Charles Nègre, the English practice of photography was right away assimilated with craft and refinement. As opposed to the French experience, English photography was not destined for the masses and their enjoyment but to the sophisticated pleasure of the gentry.
Consequently, albeit complicated, the notion of an artistic practice of photography was adopted earlier in England that in France. While France was still debating whether or not photography could be diverted into an art practise, England had already plunged into it.
 Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 17-18
 André Rouillé, La photographie, Paris, Gallimard, 2005, p. 311-312
 Michel Frizot, « Un dessin automatique, La vérité du calotype », quoted in Michel Frizot (dir.), Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 4, p. 63
The invention of photography in 1839 shattered the established patterns of representation. Images spread and became quite common. The notion of art and representation were momentarily shaken by the introduction of photographs in eastern societies. Painting and drawing were no longer the only ways to produce images. Consequently, they had to look for a new position, re-establish their values and how they were perceived by the audience. As such, it was a crisis of representation. In this section, I will study the symptoms of this crisis through the significant example of The Salon des Beaux-Arts of 1859 and try to analyse how photography brought about this crisis.
I. A. 2. a) The Salon des Beaux-Arts of 1859
It was on the occasion of the Salon des Beaux-Arts of 1859 in Paris that an exhibition of photographs was presented next to an exhibition of paintings. The French photographic society, La Société française de photographie, commissioned this exhibition. It was the first time that photography was offered a place among other images. Photography primarily belonged to mechanic processes and scientific tools. As a matter of fact, in the exhibition of 1849 in Paris, photography was labelled a “product of science” and in 1851 in London it was ranked among “Philosophical Instruments” in a section labelled “Machines”.
In 1859, twenty years after its discovery, photography had officially gained a form of recognition and acquired a new status.
 Michel Frizot, “La Transparence du Medium, Des produits de l’industrie au Salon des beaux-arts », p. 94, quoted in Michel Frizot, Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 5
 Ibid., p. 95
However, poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) wrote in his introduction to the Salon of 1859 his disappointment concerning a decline in the quality of paintings and took the opportunity to give photography a rough ride. Analysing the craze for portraits and a general taste for true representation that he called “Le gout exclusif du Vrai”, Baudelaire stated,
“Le Credo actuel des gens du monde (…) est celui-ci: ‘Je crois à la nature et je ne crois qu’à la nature (…). Je crois que l’art est et ne peut être que la reproduction exacte de la nature (…). Ainsi l’industrie qui nous donnerait un résultat identique à la nature serait l’art absolu’. Un Dieu vengeur a exaucé les vœux de cette multitude. Daguerre fut son Messie. Et alors elle se dit : ‘Puisque la photographie nous donne toutes les garanties désirables d’exactitude (ils croient cela, les insensés), l’art, c’est la photographie.’ A partir de ce moment, la société immonde se rua, comme un seul Narcisse, pour contempler sa triviale image sur le métal.”
Baudelaire was highly critical of the introduction of photography in the Salon. Admitting that photography could produce artistic images was impossible to him. He assumed that “l’industrie, faisant irruption dans l’art, en devient la plus mortelle ennemie, et que la confusion des fonctions empêche qu’aucune soit bien remplie.” He thought that photography should remain the humble servant of sciences and arts and only be a scientific tool to reproduce the real; that it should not compete with art, whose main reference was painting.
Besides, when Baudelaire evokes “reproduction exacte” and “garanties désirables d’exactitude”, he refers to the major difference between painting and photography. The first practice makes a selection; the second by its accuracy of definition – especially in the use of daguerreotypes – does not make a selection but shows the real as it is. In fact, what struck people the most with the appearance of photographs in the public sphere was the accuracy of their details, sharpness and ability to reproduce perfectly the real, yet without colours. The value of photography was determined by its precision and accuracy. As such, it contrasted with painting and at the same time detached photography from art, assigning the value of the document to it.
Although Baudelaire was a friend of French photographer Nadar (1820-1910) who deeply committed himself to promote photography as art, Baudelaire’s statement showed how industrialization, progress and one of its products, photography, confused people’s ideas of that time. Until the invention of photography, art had always been hand-made. Yet, photography, a mechanical process, claimed to be able to create artistic images as well. The invention of photography thus diverted the notion of art.
I. A. 2. b) Competition, influences and autonomy
Sitting besides painting, photography was now able to compete with it. Despite the fact that photography’s properties are different from painting; its introduction in the field of images triggered off a renewal of forms and practices. Photographic vision stimulated pictorial vision and vice versa.
The invention of the calotype by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) in 1840 introduced the notion of reproduction without making use of the engraving process. Unlike a painting, a photographic image could theoretically be infinitely reproduced. Through the medium of the ‘latent image’ as Talbot named it, the calotype process allowed as many reproductions as wanted.
Clearly the cost of a photograph was so much cheaper than that of a painting. Consequently, the population was given a larger access to the field of images. Furthermore, the photographic process was quicker in its realization than the making of a canvas. As a result, upper and middle classes rushed to make their portraits in workshops dedicated to the mass-production of photographs.
Baudelaire observed that the quality of painting had declined due to the influence of photographic vision. Obviously painting and photography were influenced by one another. On the one hand photographic compositions and subjects were borrowed from painting, on the other hand painting benefited from photographic vision.
Photographs like the one taken by Americans Scottish-born Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) and Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) during the American Civil War certainly inspired painters. For instance, French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and his painting L’exécution de Maximilien painted in 1869 seems to compete with photographic vision. Manet imagined the last minute of the life of Mexican Emperor Maximilien. The painting depicts his execution. Smoke is coming out of the soldiers’ rifles and catch Maximilien into death. Document photographs and one in particular made by François Aubert in 1867 entitled La chemise de l’empereur Maximilien après son execution was indisputably the origin of Manet’s painting. This picture shows a white shirt hanging on a door. On the shirt, gun powder and six holes are noticeable.
As far as artistic photographs are concerned
and especially the notion of blurred images, the study of Claude Monet’s
painting entitled Boulevard des Capucines
achieved in 1873 and by analogy the Impressionist movement, significantly
revealed similarities with photographic vision.
 Charles Baudelaire, « Le public moderne et la photographie », Etudes Photographiques, mai 1999, (site web : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/document185.html, consulté le 21/11/2005)
Blur, a photographic aberration, usually created by long exposure and the movement of subjects, definitely inspired Monet (1840-1926). His vision of the Boulevard des Capucines strikingly resembles blurred photographs and the working order of the camera.
This relationship between photography and painting was thoroughly studied by Aaron Scharf (1922-1993) in his book entitled Art and Photography first published in 1968. About the relationship between movement and Impressionism, Scharf assumed,
“Blurred images of pedestrian forms moving at an ordinary rate of speed, such as were recorded by the sluggish mechanisms of early cameras, cannot be duplicated by the human vision. This feature common in photographs before the development of more sensitive plates and faster shutter systems, is one of the innovations attributable to Impressionist painting”
What is more, painting and photography were strongly bound as painters used photographs for their studies. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was famous for it. Conversely, lots of photographers like Nadar, Le Gray, Nègre or Le Secq were initially trained as painters before becoming photographers. In the same way, in British society, Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson were also former painters. Similarly, Julia Margaret Cameron was deeply influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement as she was acquainted with painters Holman Hunt and George Frederick Watts.
Albeit related, photography and painting were liberated from one another as their relationship to their audience was different. In spite of its commercial and practical aspect and unlike painting, photography rapidly acquired its independence. In his book entitled La photographie, André Rouillé explained how photography gained its autonomy,
“Alors que la peinture et la littérature sont pendant longtemps restées soumises au bon vouloir des commanditaires et des mécènes, la photographie a très tôt connu des mouvements d’autonomisation vis-à-vis des contraintes pratiques et commerciales. Servant de contrepoids artistique à l’énorme poids de l’utilité pratique qui pèse sur la photographie, le processus d’autonomisation s’inscrit dans un vaste mouvement qui accompagne l’essor de la société industrielle au milieu du XIXe siècle : l’abandon par la littérature et les arts de leurs anciennes subordinations aristocratiques pour se livrer aux lois du marché, des salons et de la presse.”
As André Rouillé described, it was the industrialization
of the 19th c. society and the launch of photography on the market
that allowed photography to rapidly gain its autonomy, which eventually led to
artistic practices. As long as one had a sum of money at one’s disposal and
some knowledge in chemistry, it was possible to shoot a picture and make a
print. Unlike painting, within sixty years photography affected all the
population and at the beginning of the 20th century, almost everybody
owned or had used a camera.
 Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, London, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 170
 André Rouillé, La photographie, Paris, Gallimard, 2005, p. 310
The great universal Exhibition of London in 1851 where about 700 photographs were exhibited from six different countries and other exhibitions like the one of the Society of Arts in 1852 gradually accepted photography as a Fine Art. The arrival on the scene of the blur was finally made possible.
Sir William J. Newton (1785-1869) was a miniature painter to the court who attended The Photographic Society of London, created in 1853, to discuss the possibilities – scientific and aesthetic – of the medium.
In 1853, in his speech he addressed the members of this society, entitled Upon Photography in an Artistic View, and its Relation to the Arts, he claimed that a slight ‘out of focus’ could be closer to ‘the suggestions which nature offers’. His speech was a general outcry and triggered off much controversy and tumultuous debates as the later text by Elizabeth Eastlake in 1857 suggested.
William Newton practiced photography according to the artistic genre. As a painter using the camera, his views upon the practice of photography were devoted to Fine Arts and as he concluded in his speech, he felt photography should be “an assistant to the Fine Arts.” However, Newton was conscious that the camera could not be, essentially speaking, art. The camera should be manipulated and used artistically. One should be aware of the principles of art to produce an artistic picture. He said, “The Camera is by no means calculated to teach the principles of art.” His reflection shows how a technique cannot be art in itself. The photographic process can be diverted and used in artistic purposes if put in the hands of man and used with “manual ingenuity”.
Having set his practice in the artistic field, he acknowledged that true representation in the sense of accuracy and precision of details, was not true to him as he felt nature was suggestive. He assumed that “still the general tone of nature has yet to be accomplished by means of Photography.” As he studied nature, he acknowledged “how beautifully she throws her atmospheric veil” and her “atmospheric influence” upon natural objects.
To conform to this vision of nature, he thus advocated the use of a “little out of focus”. He explained,
“I do not conceive it to be necessary or desirable for an artist to represent or aim at the attainment of every minute detail, but to endeavour at producing a broad and general effect, by which means the suggestions which nature offers, as represented by the Camera, will assist his studies materially: and indeed, for this purpose, I do not consider it necessary that the whole of the subject should be what is called in focus; on the contrary, I have found in many instances that the object is better obtained by the whole subject being a little out of focus, thereby giving a greater breadth of effect, and consequently more suggestive of the true character of nature.”
From a scientific observation of nature, he proposed to represent this observation by using the optical aberration of the camera, the slight out of focus. He figured the fuzziness derived from a slight out of focus could be very interesting and very similar to the atmospheric effects of nature.
As a result, blur embodied suggestion. Blur was the element which drew a line between a human perception and a photographic representation, and in the meantime set blurred images in the field of artistic practice. As the function of the camera was diverted and the use of blur appeared, the notion of artistic pictures progressively revealed itself.
Furthermore, William Newton, a fervent calotypist from the previous society The Calotype Club, advocated the use of the negative process which naturally entailed softness. He said:
“I will now advert to the mode I have adopted, in taking positives by the negative process. I am, however, well aware that I lose something by this means in sharpness and perhaps in softness, but, on the whole, it appears to me that a more artistic character is produced (…)”
As Newton suggested, the use of blur was bound to the use of paper prints and the negative process, as opposed to the daguerreotype process. Softness and fuzziness put down roots within the negative process and the calotype. As the collodion process on glass plates appeared in 1851, the transparency of glass and the quicker time of exposure induced by the use of collodion triggered off another practice. Blur could either be eliminated from pictures or still used in terms of aesthetic quests.
Another brilliant supporter of artistic effects in photography was a woman, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (1809-1893) born Rigby, who married Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865) in 1849, the very first president of The Photographic Society as Talbot refused the position.
In 1857, The Quarterly Review published Lady Eastlake’s article on photography. The article was published as a review and was never signed nor entitled by its author. In this article Elizabeth Eastlake proposed to study the relationship between art and photography. Although she concluded that photography would never be able to surpass painting, she demonstrated that photography was ultimately a new “medium” which connected people and joined them together. People were actually “speaking a new language, and bound together by a new sympathy”, she observed. She introduced the fact that photography was “a new form of communication”. In a peculiar but quite interesting way, she began her review with these remarks,
“For it is one of the pleasant characteristics of this pursuit that it unites men of the most diverse lives, habits, and stations, so that whoever enters its ranks finds himself in a kind of republic, where it needs apparently but to be a photographer to be a brother.”
“A kind of republic”, as she described the photographic mania, accurately expressed the 19th century feeling that photography was now entering into the forefront of the masses’ lives and minds. With the invention of the steam train and the expansion of railways, photography certainly was, indeed, the greatest invention of the 1840s.
Regarding William Newton’s speech of 1853, Lady Eastlake reported that “this excellent artist could hardly have chosen an audience less fitted to endure such a proposition.” The proposition of the use of blur actually did not fit the idea of what photographers thought photography should be. How a scientific photographer could actually “comprehend the possible beauty of a ‘slight burr’.” Notice how the words “burr” and “blur” sound the same.
In fact, as Easlake stated “art had hitherto been but a blundering groper after that truth which the cleanest and precisest photography in his hands was now destined to reveal”, she opposed two ideas: the idea of a true representation in photography and the one of a true representation in painting. Photography initiated a new notion of truth in representation; and subsequently redirected the notion of truth or true representation in other arts like painting. Photography revealed truth – accurate in the sharp details of a photograph – in representation and by doing so, the notion was altered. In other words photographic trueness transformed pictorial trueness. As such, that is why Baudelaire claimed that painters should be more attracted by the Beautiful than the Truth. In his introduction to the Salon of 1859, he observed that “Le goût exclusif du Vrai (…) opprime ici et étouffe le goût du Beau. Où il faudrait ne voir que le Beau (je suppose une belle peinture, et l’on peut aisément deviner celle que je me figure), notre public ne cherche que le Vrai.” Baudelaire referred to both the naturalistic aesthetic and the introduction of the photographic vision in painting.
The mechanic process overcame the hand process in representing the truth, which eventually led painting to redefine itself and create its new vision of a true representation.
Eastlake agreed on the benefit of using blur to create artistic effects. She assumed,
“The falling off of artistic effect is even more strikingly seen if we consider the department of landscape. Here the success with which all accidental blurs and blotches have been overcome, and the sharp perfection of the object which stands out against the irreproachably speckless sky, is exactly as detrimental to art as it is complimentary to science.”
She confirmed the relationship between the use of blur and the artistic practice of photography. Blur and flaws are the distinguishable aspects that rank photography among artistic practices.
Like Newton, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake considered photography as a Fine Art. Nevertheless, she thought photography could not supersede painting. She wrote “The beau ideal of a Turner and the delight of a Rubens are caviar to her”; photography “is yet subject to certain distortions and deficiencies for which there is no remedy.”
The same year that Eastlake’s article was
published Queen Victoria, who loved to collect photographs, acquired her first grand
pictorial photograph, The Two Ways of
Life by Oscar Gustave Rejlander. If Eastlake did not strictly establish
photography as art, she definitely advanced
the debate of photography as an art.
 Sir William J. Newton, “Upon Photography in an Artistic View, and its Relation to the Arts”, 1853, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 80
 Ibid. , p. 79
 Ibid. , p. 94
 Ibid. , p. 83
 Ibid. , p. 91
 Charles Baudelaire, « Le public moderne et la photographie », Etudes Photographiques, mai 1999, (site web : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/document185.html, consulté le 21/11/2005)
 Elizabeth Eastlake, “Photgraphy”, 1857, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 92
 Ibid., p. 90
 Ibid., p. 91
A. The Empirical Blur
In classifying and analysing the use of out of focus, two approaches presented themselves: I could classify photographers according to the use, more or less deliberate, of the blur in their pictures or according to their interests and participation in artistic movements. Facing a limited corpus of pictures and information concerning their degree of involvement in artistic movements I chose to distinguish photographers according to the extent they thought soft focus should intervene in their work and how much they theorized about it.
In fact, in the study of out of focus, two aspects stand out. The first one is an empirical experience of it. In other words, some photographers experienced the blur, found interest in the optical defect of the camera and pursued a type of photography that they felt remarkable, beautiful or simply interesting. The second aspect is the theory that others drew from the experience of this stylistic device. To them, blur actually became a starting point to elaborate general aesthetic principles.
In the field of empirical experience of the
blur, I identified two types of photographers namely, portrait photographers
and landscape photographers. In the field of portraitists, one figure stood out
in particular, British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). As for landscape
photographers, I chose to focus on two British photographers whose pictures,
despite being difficult and rare to find in photography publications,
particularly touched me for their confounding beauty. Although portrait and landscape
are two different subjects, in both cases, the use of blur is one of the
factors that brought about the notion of pictorial effect in English photography.
No doubt Julia Margaret Cameron was the first artist to voluntarily use out of focus to create her own aesthetic. She wanted to transcend the world of appearances, go beyond reality and capture the beauty of the body and soul. This idea is all the more relevant when we take into account the fact that Cameron was a fervent Anglican. Her endeavour to transcend the real resembled a religious quest. In her short and unfinished autobiography, she described her attraction for photography as follows, “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
II. A. 1. a) Julia Margaret Cameron and her contemporaries
Julia Margaret Pattle was born in 1815 in Calcutta. After the death of her parents, Julia Margaret and her six sisters moved to Versailles in France and lived with their maternal grandmother. In 1838, she married Charles Hay Cameron who was twenty years her senior. They settled in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, near the house of the poet Alfred Tennyson, whom she would later photograph. In 1863, aged 48, Cameron came into photography by accident. Her daughter and son-in-law offered her a camera as a gift to compensate their absence. As Cameron reported her daughter’s words in Annals of My Glass House (1874), “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.”
Cameron first exhibited in 1865 in London and won a bronze medal in Berlin. She became famous abroad since between 1870 and 1875, she sent over twenty-five photographs to Victor Hugo who was very fond of her work. Thinking about Cameron’s photographs, he wrote, “No one has ever captured the rays of the sun and used them as you have. I throw myself at your feet.”
Nevertheless, Cameron was severely criticised by her contemporaries for her careless technique, that is to say her use of out of focus. For instance, writer and portraitist photographer Lewis Carroll thought very little of Cameron’s work and never quite understood Cameron’s using of blur. As he reported in his journal,
“… Madame Cameron et moi, nous avons exposé ensemble nos photographies. Les siennes sont toutes délibérément floues – certaines très pittoresques – d’autres tout simplement horribles. Elle en parle comme des réussites artistiques exceptionnelles.”
On the contrary, Sir John F. Herschel (1792-1871), who participated in the invention and progress of the calotype with his friend William Henry Fox Talbot, was, with her husband Charles, one of the first to encourage her to pursue her work. In a letter to Herschel, she explains her ambition to elevate her art beyond
conventional topographic Photography – map making and skeleton rendering of
feature and form without that roundness and fullness of force and feature that
modelling of flesh and limb which the focus I use only can give tho’ called and
condemned as ‘out of focus.’ What is focus – and who has a right to say what
focus is the legitimate focus – My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and
to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and
ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and
Julia Margaret Cameron only focused on making portraits and held a specific interest in ‘famous men and fair women’ of her time; she took pictures of the astronomer and friend Sir John Herschel, writer Alfred Tennyson, Henry Taylor or Robert Browning, historian Thomas Carlyle, scientist Charles Darwin, Pre-Raphaelite painters George Frederick Watts and Holman Hunt, but also elaborated religious mythological scenes, portraying her maids as madonnas and children as angels. She was also very fond of literature. As such, she composed a lot of literary scenes. Paul and Virginia and Friar Laurence and Juliet were one of the first pictures she achieved in 1864.
In 1874, Cameron illustrated one of Tennyson’s books entitled Idylls of the King and Other Poems. The
following year, she went back to Ceylon where she died in 1879.
II. A. 1. b) Julia Margaret Cameron: a spiritual use of the blur
Cameron’s approach to photography appears very personal and creative. Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, the artistic movement founded in England in 1848 with the creation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Cameron’s work is pictorial in the sense that it is ultimately derived from the experience or appeal of the art of painting.
produced a range of work, all inspired by painterly examples. This tendency in
photographers of the 1850s and 1860s to emulate painting was widespread and
most popular in the work of Henry Peach Robinson and Oscar Rejlander before
Cameron’s own pictures became well known.”
Photography’s aesthetic should start with painting’s aesthetic as Francis Wey enunciated in his “Théorie du portrait” reproduced in the French revue La Lumière (1851). Cameron composed her photographs like paintings in the tradition of Henry Peach Robinson as he described in his book, Pictorial Effect in Photography published in 1869.
How did out of focus intervene in that close relationship to painting?
In her series dedicated to the story of Beatrice Cenci, Cameron produced
several prints, using two female models over a period of five years, to express
her own vision of Beatrice Cenci and mostly to show her idea of who Beatrice
Cenci was. She was inspired by Guido Reni’s painting and probably read, as a
learned Victorian, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play published in 1819 which
dramatized the story of a girl who conspired to kill her father who had
sexually abused her. Stendhal and Nathaniel Hawthorne both reported the story
in their respective novels, Italian
Chronicles and The Marble Faun.
Guido Reni, Beatrice Cenci, 1599 Julia M. Cameron, Beatrice, March 1866
If we compare both Reni’s painting and Cameron’s photograph, we can see how similar and symmetric they are. In the clothes, turban, inclination of the head and look at the observer, Cameron literally copied the painting.
“Au milieu de la masse ondulante des
cheveux et de la draperie, le visage, encore enfantin, magistralement façonné
par une lumière très douce et baignant d’un flou onirique, semble vibrer d’une émotion
contenue qui exprime à merveille la détresse de la jeune fille accablée par son
The very frontal approach she had of her sitters is a style unique to Cameron’s. Not only were her models standing out of their environmental context, coming out of darkness, but what made her particular and original approach was the slight out of focus effect that she described as being a “fluke” in her Annals. “My first successes in my out of focus pictures were a fluke”, Cameron said.
“That is to say, that when
focusing 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.”
It all started with a fortunate mistake that eventually became an artistic value. Through shooting images out of focus, Cameron’s photographs go beyond the simple representation of reality. By using the out of focus technique, Cameron encourages the viewer to interpret the subject or scene that is represented.
In Beatrice, she took a work of art as her subject and, using the camera as a brush, she added a slight out of focus. We can thus infer from Cameron’s print that the soft focus of the picture is her interpretation of the martyr of Beatrice Cenci. The picture seems more evocative and vibrant than Guido Reni’s painting. Cameron must have felt all the more connected to this character as a religious person. Her model May Prinsep looks like a Madonna in a state of grace. Facing death and looking directly at the camera, she reminds us another picture, the one of Lewis Payne just before his execution in 1865, taken by Alexander Gardner. A picture that Roland Barthes took to illustrate his “ça a été” in La Chambre Claire. A picture whose caption says in Barthes’s book: “Il est mort et il va mourir.”
 J. M. Bruson, Hommage de Julia Margaret Cameron à Victor Hugo, Paris, Maison de Victor Hugo, p. 19 quoted in Mike Weaver, « L’Aspiration Artistique, la tentation des beaux arts », p.195, is presented in Michel Frizot (dir.), Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 10,
 Julia Margaret Cameron, Annals of My Glass House (1874) is presented in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 136
 Roland Barthes, La Chambre Claire, Paris, Gallimard, Le
Seuil, 1980, p. 149
Both characters were young, committed a crime and were hanged after their trial. Fate is inscribed in both pictures. A state of grace touches these two characters while their death is getting close. Cameron’s picture was made a year after Gardner’s. The Portrait of Lewis Payne is a document, whereas Cameron’s Beatrice gives an artistic point of view. Using the blur, she eclipses the information – Beatrice Cenci, a murderer – to shape an idea or rather an ideal of Beatrice Cenci. She entitled her piece Beatrice and not Beatrice Cenci, as a document or illustration would state. It shows how close she felt to this character, she could have been a friend or a child that she knew. Obviously, she had seen her as a victim more than a murderer and that is why she felt to express another idea of Beatrice Cenci. Soft focus made this happen.
It is striking how Cameron’s approach to photography is related to painting. Conversely, it is striking how painter Johannes Vermeer’s approach to painting is related to photography.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s work as a photographer is close to the work of painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) who allegedly used the camera obscura, the ancestor of the camera, in his paintings. David Hockney’s work and recent scientific studies have revealed that he used optical lenses to reproduce the nature of light on various surfaces and that this practise triggered a general fuzziness, blurring the contours of his subjects.
J. Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-7
The Girl with a Pearl Earring was made a hundred years before Cameron’s Beatrice but also embodies how soft focus was used to idealize a subject.
Mariët Westermann observed,
“Limitations of the technical perfection of the early camera obscura account for some of the arresting effects that have been noted in Vermeer's paintings. Despite their astonishing accuracy, 17th c. lenses did not focus with complete precision through the entire depth of fields. Like objects through the camera obscura, Vermeer's forms are defined by contrasting areas of light and dark color rather than by hard outlines. This clear, smooth, but soft-edged contouring often yields geometric abstraction, of the sort seen in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Here the shape of the head is conceived in broad areas of light and dark, separated by softly rounded edges."
As an optical aberration, blur is linked to a photographic vision and appears to be only and purely a photographic mechanism.
Three possibilities can entail out of focus in Cameron’s pictures; the sitter was placed too close to the camera; she did not focus correctly or the sitter moved during the time of exposure. The exposure could actually last from 3 to 12 seconds since Cameron used the collodion process. Invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, this photographic process consisted in the spread of a solution of collodion over the glass plates which were used as negatives.
Inspired by 19th c. spiritualism, Julia Margaret Cameron used fuzziness to express her aesthetic vision and the connection she felt existed between her models, subjects and the spiritual world. Blur adds a poetic and spiritual meaning to her portraits. It gives the impression that her sitters are elusive and ungraspable, that they are ‘fading away’ – which is also the title of a photograph by H. P. Robinson – from the physical world.
Cameron is one of the photographers who drew a line between painting and photography by practicing photography according to the artistic genre.
 Mariët Westermann, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 226
 Frederick Scott Archer, “The Use of Collodion in Photography”, 1851, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography : Essays & Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p.51-52
 Le Troisième Œil : la photographie et l’occulte, Paris, Gallimard, 2004. Texts by Clément Chéroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canquilhem and Sophie Schmidt.
Paradoxically, it seems that while photographers were conforming to a pictorial vision, as Cameron did, they were at the same time calling it into question as they were essentially questioning the relationship between photography and painting. The British landscape photographers George Davison (1854-1930) and Alfred Horsley Hinton (1863-1908) sought to assert their distinctive photographic identity. Later they came to be associated with the photographic and aesthetic movement called Pictorialism.
II. A. 2. a) George Davison: a naturalistic and impressionist use of the blur
Both photographers instilled impressionist and ethereal atmospheric effects in their pictures and both of them worked on landscapes as their major subjects. As Davison stated in his paper to The British Journal of Photography in September 1889,
“It is not in man, even in f.64 man, to overlook the unnaturalness of joinings in photographic pictures, and the too visible drawing-room drapery air about attractive ladies playing at haymaking and fishwives.”
Davison was in agreement with Peter Henry Emerson’s rejection of Cameron’s pictorial portraits. However, he did appreciate Oscar G. Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson’s work on prints made up of pieces of different negatives. He was against Robinson’s main idea that the essential characteristic of photography was the use of focus in order to achieve complete accuracy and sharpness. He also followed the steps of Emerson and his theories upon photography which favoured a naturalistic point of view on subjects, usually preferring taking picture of landscapes, rural and seaside scenes.
Nevertheless, Davison chose a different path concerning the use of focus. He preferred a general soft focus rather than Emerson’s idea of a selected focus to set a general idea of nature. He wrote in 1891 that “plus la photographie se révèle capable de traduire une appréhension directe de la nature, plus elle peut influer sur la sensibilité esthétique“.
In order to reach this idea, he used a pinhole camera to produce soft focus pictures. One of his achievements is the picture entitled The Onion Field of 1889. The picture depicts an isolated farm which stands behind a vast onion field. The human presence is introduced with smoke going out of a chimney and some washing hanging out in the courtyard.
from the dark areas of the forest behind the farm to the foot of the onion
field in the foreground and light areas marked by the top of each single plant
of onion, one of the roofs of the houses which compose the farm, the drying
clothes and the sky, the overall image gives a feeling of light reflecting
differently, bringing out the shades of light, but largely absorbed by the
The picture presents all the characteristics of impressionism. The perspective is flattened by the use of soft focus due to the absence of lens in the pinhole camera. Nothing in particular stands out. We are more under the “impression” of a general landscape since the onion field mingles with the old farm situated in the background. Accuracy of figures, though distinguishable, disappears to the benefit of a “sensitive” apprehension on the general landscape. Davison captured and emphasized the essence of the subject rather than its details.
The Onion Field is closer to the memory of an onion field rather than an accurate representation of an onion field. Soft focus establishes the idea that what matters the most is not the onion field itself but “the idea of an onion field”. Talking about pinhole cameras, Michel Imbert said, “C’est le cerveau qui voit, ce n’est pas l’oeil”. This idea is confirmed by the absence of lens, which usually stands for the human eye in the optical mechanism of a camera. Therefore, the information given - a field of onions - is interpreted by the pinhole camera - a fuzzy field of onion - which can be compared to the human perception. It reinforces the fact that seeing is always an interpretation. As Michel Imbert put it,
“ Quand je regarde le monde qui m’entoure, je le regarde avec mes yeux, c’est à dire mes désirs, mes craintes, mes propres idées, mais lorsque je le regarde tel que représenté sur une photographie, c’est à travers les yeux et l’esprit du photographe qu’il m’apparaît.“
The impressionist photograph by Davison emphasizes his interpretation of a rural scene. A focused representation of that onion field would have been a basic representation of an onion field but the use of soft focus shows the idea of going beyond strict reality, pure description or the science of appearances. Citing impressionist painters like Claude Monet, Davison emphasizes the human perception of the real, in opposition to a strict depiction of the real. He allows representation to go back to its source. That is to say that, in representation, whether it is photographic or pictorial representation, the major interest is not the real – the subject – but what we understand of it and how we perceive it.
II. A. 2. b) Alfred Horsley Hinton: a purely impressionist use of the blur
In the same way, Alfred Horsley Hinton only focused on impressionist landscapes. Though he died quite young, aged 45, he is one of the most brilliant landscape photographers of English pictorial photography. Unlike Davison, he did not care about making a direct print and liked to work on negatives. He usually composed his photographs by working on several negatives, assembling them – what Davison mentioned as “unnatural joinings” - and often drew on them. In the end, he obtained one single and original print. He was probably taught by Ralph Robinson, the son of Henry Peach Robinson when he was working at Robinson’s workshop at the beginning of the 1890s.
Alfred Horsley Hinton, Hymn, 1895 – Fig. 1
All of his landscapes are English landscapes and his particular feature was to entitle his photographs allegorically. His photographs Fleeting and Far, Beyond and Rain from the Hills were both published in 1905 in Alfred Stieglitz’s revue Camera Work (1903-1917).
Hinton ran the London revue Amateur Photographer and supported pictorial photography until his death in 1908. His passion for pictorial and impressionist photography reveals itself in his photograph Hymn taken in 1895 (fig. 1).
A pond, surrounded by a forest in the background and a moor in the foreground, reflects the light of a cloudy sky. Some dark and light areas from the sky echo in the pond. A row of trees makes the transition between the earth and the sky.
Gustave Le Gray, La Grande Vague, Sète, 1857 - Fig. 2
To study Alfred Horsley Hinton’s picture, I would like to compare it to one of Gustave Le Gray’s photograph he did in 1857 called La Grande Vague.
Interestingly enough, French photographer Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884) and Alfred Horsley Hinton were both trained as painters and became photographers. Both pictures associate two elements. The sky takes as much importance as the earth (fig. 1) or the sea (fig. 2). We can recall Turner’s paintings when we observe the sky of these pictures. Both skies are luminous and dramatic and reflect the watery elements. Both photographers worked on two separate negatives, one for the sky and one for the earth.
What is blurred in Le Gray’s picture is the motion of the wave splashing the rocks, whereas in Hinton’s it is the vegetation. In both pictures, we can sense the action of the wind which is implied by the dramatic sky. If Le Gray faces a big wave, as the title of his picture suggests, Hinton’s pond shows wavelets on its edge. It is interesting how the slight blur of each picture is linked to the notion of motion and time of exposure. In Hinton’s landscape, it gives a dreamy and impressionist idea of a British landscape whereas in Le Gray’s picture, it emphasizes the very action of the wave splashing the rocks of the quayside at the city of Sète.
Besides, the structure of both pictures is very similar. The skyline is broken by the forest in Hinton’s (fig. 1) and by the dock in Le Gray’s (fig. 2). If we compare the lines of sight, we can see that they both start from the bottom of the right hand side of the picture and point to the middle left hand side. In the foreground, the row of rocks (fig. 2) echoes to the line of the moor (fig. 1). Parallels can be drawn between rocks and the dock (fig; 2) and the beginning of the pond and the background forest (fig. 1).
As for the titles of the pictures, Gustave Le Gray’s seascape has got a descriptive title whereas Alfred Horsley Hinton entitled his picture Hymn. This may refer to what the landscape recalls to him. Hinton chose an evocative caption, drawing an interpretation of his subject. Le Gray chose a descriptive one. While Le Gray’s picture only refers to itself, Hinton’s approach of the landscape invites us to reflect upon another image, picture or sound we have in mind, drawing a line between photography and history of art or photography and music for instance.
after The Great Wave by Gustave Le
Gray, photography had evolved, experiencing new techniques and visions among
those who practised it. Neither picture is more beautiful or artistic than the
other but they demonstrate a different approach to photography. Impressionist
vision is what characterised Hinton and Davison’s landscapes. They deeply
related to the artistic trend of the end of the 19th century, and in
particular to painting with the Impressionist movement. It is quite interesting
to notice that it was French photographer Nadar who first presented the
Impressionist painters in his workshop, boulevard des Capucines, in 1874.
 Geroge Davison, The British Journal of Photography, vol.36 (September 13, 1889), p. 611, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 142
 George Davison, « Impressionism in Photography », The Photographic Times, n°21, p. 487 (16 janvier 1891) and p. 491 (13 février 1891), is presented in Ann Hammond, “Vision Naturelle et Image Symboliste, la reference picturale”, p. 295, quoted in Michel Frizot (dir.), La Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 17
 Michel Imbert, « C’est le cerveau qui voit, ce n’est pas l’œil », p.55, quoted in Jean-Marie Baldner & Yannick Vigouroux, Les Pratiques Pauvres, du sténopé au téléphone mobile, Paris, Isthme éditions, 2005
 Ibid., p. 55
 Geroge Davison, The British Journal of Photography, vol.36 (September 13, 1889), p. 611, is presented in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 142
B. The Theoretical Blur
With regard to the focus debate, Peter Henry
Emerson was the first photographer to support and draw up a theory out of the
use of a partial blur. He developed an aesthetic vision that he claimed was naturalistic.
After Cameron’s spiritual blur and Davison and Hinton’s impressionist
fuzziness, Emerson threw himself into pictorial photography which he proposed
II. B. 1. a) Peter Henry Emerson: a scientific approach of pictorial photography
Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) was a brilliant medical student who abandoned his career as a physician for the sake of photography. He sought a scientific founding to art photography, and made a dashing and revolutionary entrance in the photographic world when, as an introduction to his aesthetic approach of what photography should be, he harshly criticized all the emblematic figures of pictorial photography and pre-Raphaelites.
In his lecture to The Camera Club of London, in March 11, 1886, though unnamed, he referred to art critic John Ruskin, who influenced pictorial photographers like Cameron and Rejlander, in those terms:
“One of these spasmodic elegants of Art literature has made it a point to scoff at any connexion between science and Art, and has flooded the world, in beautiful writing in which his power lies, with dogmatic assertions and illogical statements.”
In the same way, he was not afraid to target photographer Henry Peach Robinson’s book, entitled Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869),
“a senseless jargon of quotations from literary writers on Art matters, a confused bundle of lines which take all sorts of ridiculous directions (…) contain[ing] the quintessence of a blend of literary fallacies and Art anachronism”
Having established his full disagreement with former pictorial photography, and adopting the ideas of Hermann von Helmholtz, who explored the mechanics of human vision, Emerson tried to find a new base to photography. He said, “we [photographers] can never equal painting; but all other branches of pictorial Art we are able to surpass”. “Painting alone”, he continued, “is our master”. His whole point was to represent as true as possible the impression of Nature on the human eye. The real was supplanted by the perception of the real. His approach was called naturalistic.
To reach this idea of a naturalistic approach, he advised photographers to go outside their studios and workshops and photograph real people in their natural environment. He dismissed the contrived and posing costumed models of Victorian society.
As regards the use of focus, Emerson explained his views in his book, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, twenty years after Robinson’s, in 1889. He advised a focus with judgement, a slight out of focus,
“not [to] be carried to the length of destroying the structure of any object, otherwise it becomes noticeable, and by attracting detracts from the harmony, and is then just as harmful as excessive sharpness would be. (…) Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into that something else, often so subtlety that you cannot quite distinguish where one ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature.”
His textbook was described as “a bombshell dropped in a tea party” and resulted in much criticism. Robinson claimed that “healthy human eyes never saw any part of a scene out of focus”. And Emerson replied “I have yet to learn that any one statement or photograph of Mr. H. P. Robinson has ever had the slightest effect upon me except as a warning of what not to do.” As a result, some photographers followed Emerson’s point of view on out of focus and started to shoot soft focus photographs, sarcastically called by others “fuzzygraphs”.
The debate over focus was a very tricky and impassioned one in 19th century British photography. Emerson had made a vehement protest against the former genre of pictorial photography, yet the photographical world continued to subscribe to a pictorial composition as the photographs of the period remained very similar in framing and composition to painting. The combination of these two factors initiated a new way of making picture. Emerson’s style stands in-between pure photography – or ‘straight photography’ as Sadakichi Hartmann stated - and pictorial photography. 
II. B. 1. b) Peter Henry Emerson: the obsession of focusing like the eye
In my study of Emerson’s naturalistic
fuzziness, I will compare his photograph entitled A Stiff Pull (1888) to Jean François Millet’s painting called Les Glaneuses (1857) presented in the Musée
 Peter Henry Emerson, « Photography, A Pictorial Art », 1886, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 159
 Ibid., p. 160
 Ibid., p. 160
 Peter Henry Emerson, Naturalistic Photography, p. 193, is quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 142
 R. Child Bayley, The Complete Photographer, New York, McClure and Phillips, 1906, p. 357, is quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 141
 Henry Peach Robinson, Picture-Making by Photography, 2d ed., London, Hazell Watson and Viney, 1889, p. 135 is quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 142
 The Amateur Photographer, vol. 9, April 26, 1889, p. 270 is quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 142
 Sadakichi Hartmann, “A Plea for Straight Photography”, 1904 is
quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography:
Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 185-188
Peter Henry Emerson, A Stiff Pull, 1888
Jean-François Millet, Les Glaneuses, 1857
Jean François Millet (1814-1875) was one of Emerson’s big influences. He actually referred to him in is Photography, A Pictorial Art among other painters such as John Constable (1776-1837) and Camille Corot (1796-1875). As a matter of fact, Millet and Corot’s work had been exhibited in London in the 1870s.
A Stiff Pull was published in the book Pictures of East Anglian Life in 1888 and presented a lot of folkloristic studies. Two horses are dragging a plough while a farmer is digging a furrow in fallow land. Gravel is scattered over the surface. A cloudy sky opposes the sloping ground in equal proportion. The scene is taken from behind. The horses stand in the centre whereas the ploughman, who is wearing a hat, lies in the foreground on the left hand side of the picture.
In Jean François Millet’s picture, Les Glaneuses, gestures and details in the picture are absorbed in the action. The hands and face of the female gleaners are coarse and roughly done. Their shoes almost merge with the colour of the land. In the same way, the colour and shades of the sky reminds the brown and yellow tones of the field. A feeling of blur and lack of accuracy prevail.
Similarly, a general look at Emerson’s picture shows that it does not give any sharp vision of the rural scene he photographed. The horses and the top of the ploughman’s body stand out of the skyline level but the overall greyness of the ground corrupts the living elements. In his effort, the ploughman seems disproportionate and deformed. Besides, the motion of the effort sets the general fuzziness of his body.
a closer look at Emerson’s pictorial picture may change our first impression. In
spite of a general soft focus, some parts appear to be focused and sharp. In
fact, if the left leg is blurred by the pull of traction, the other one, the
stiff one as the title says, is sharply focused. Even if it is difficult to
distinguish the ploughman’s right shoe, deepened in the gravelled ground, we
can observe that around this shoe all the ground and stones are totally focused.
Therefore, Peter Henry Emerson, through the title of his photograph, pointed
out the area that the viewer should look. With the caption, he actually indicated
where the viewer should in turn focus.
In The Amateur Photographer, January 1890, D. Habord described the picture as such,
“An awful abortion representing a man plowing up-hill with a pair of horses. The man’s foot was as long as the horse’s head and the whole picture was gloriously so ‘naturalistic’, i.e., ‘fuzzy’ or ‘focused with judgement’ that it was denounced as an imposture.”
Nonetheless, the plate received a silver medal at The Amateur Photo Exhibition in London in 1886.
Setting the pictures of Emerson in the history of photography, he appears as a pioneer photographer. Although he abandoned his beliefs that photography was an art in 1891, after he was told by scientists that control of tones by development was impossible, he was the first photographer to have linked up science and art, the document and art photography. With his care of a naturalistic subject, framing and hypothesis on what focus should be, he seemed to have brought in the very beginnings of social photography.
In his ideal of representation, Emerson tried to gather both the Truth and the Beautiful, as Baudelaire opposed in these terms two contradictory aspects of art in his speech of the Salon des Beaux-Arts of 1859. A true representation was achieved by the choice of subjects and a beautiful one thanks to the art of the photographer. Following the tradition of pictorial art, a concern in framing, the rendering of the light in its shaded tones (Photography, a Pictorial Art) and through the use of blur Emerson banished the idea of a commercial photography and its primary function as a document.
In the 1880s, through on-going debates and discussions upon the use of blur, photography had reached the status of art in photographers’ mind. Painting and photography were easily comparable and similarities were drawn between the two. Photography little by little had gained credibility. Now sharing a mutual ground with painting, through combining aesthetic and mastery, photography was waiting for its independence and recognition from a larger audience. Even though photographs had been exhibited since the very beginning of the 1850s and photographic societies flourished, photographers wanted to offer their art a ‘room of its own’, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s words in another context. As such, a group of photographers decided to set an example and ventured into the prospect of photography as an art.
II. B. 2. a) The Linked Ring Brotherhood: a showcase to blurred photographs
In 1888, the first hand camera was released on the market by George Eastman’s company Kodak. A year later, photographic film was made of celluloid and mass produced. A new photographic industry developed and specialized in processing film rolls and printing. Consequently, there was no more need to have a special room in the house dedicated to photography, no need to manipulate and buy expensive chemicals or glass plates and no need to possess knowledge to make meticulous hand-prints. It was thus a major breakthrough in the evolution of photography. These great improvements introduced a new approach in framing pictures and allowed photographers to explore their environment, leading at the beginning of the 20th century to documentary and street photography. As a result, a larger population could now access photography; a population which, on the whole, held no regard for photography as an art.
Owing to the fact that photography was now available to a new social class, it was no more the privileged pastime of a certain elite called the amateur photographers. More and more images were being produced, sold and reproduced. More and more photographs illustrated newspapers for example. In view of the democratisation and industrialization of the medium and out of fear that good taste and art would be crushed by popularization, some amateur photographers distanced themselves and got together to discuss representation and art photography.
In 1891, the first exhibition of art photography took place in Vienna. It was initiated by the German photographic society Kamera Club. Some British amateur photographers from the Royal Photographic Society, who felt disenchanted and oppressed by the majority of photographers who were basically technologist photographers, complained that their work was not recognized and decided to break away and form their own collective.
With regard to the American Civil War of the 1860s, they later claimed themselves to be photo-secessionists, as American Alfred Stieglitz’s speech suggested in 1903.
Alfred Stieglitz claimed that the
photo-secession was accomplished
“(…) to register their [photographers] protest against the reactionary spirit of the masses. This protest, this secession from the spirit of the doctrinaire, of the compromiser, at length found its expression in the foundation of the Photo-Secession. Its aim is loosely to hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavour to compel its recognition, not as the hand-maiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression.”
Under the impulse of Alfred Maskell, British ‘secessionists’ assembled and founded the Linked Ring Brotherhood in 1892. This new society, whose founder members were Alfred Maskell, H. P. Robinson, Lionel Clark, George Davison, Henry Hay Cameron (Julia Margaret Cameron’s son) and Alfred Horsley Hinton, declared itself to be the standard bearer of art photography in England. The name of the Linked Ring was chosen to symbolize the unity of its members.
The Linked Ring Brotherhood welcomed international photographers who had also broken away from the mainstream - seceded - and adopted new members such as British photographers Frederick Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Frank M. Sutcliffe; American Baron Adolf De Meyer, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward J. Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence H. White; French Robert Demachy and Constant Puyo; and German Heinrich Kühn, and Theodor and Oscar Hofmeister.
To promote art photography, the aims of the Linked Ring were threefold. First, they held annual exhibitions from 1893 to 1909. They called them “salons”, a name deliberately borrowed from the world of painting. Second, they published portfolios, photoengravings and photography revues. Alfred Horsley Hinton took over the editorship of The Amateur Photographer in 1893. Finally, they spread the Pictorialist ideas which expanded with the creation of other international photographic societies such as The Photo Club of Paris and The Photo-Secession of New York.
Following the example of painting, once thought to be a purely mechanical process, they sought to demonstrate photography’s uniqueness. From the dominant idea of photography as scientific, liberal and opened to anyone emerged the Pictorialist movement which encompassed all artistic photography, whether it was impressionist, naturalistic or symbolist.
II. B. 2. b) The Pictorialist Movement: a claiming of blur
Pictorialism was considered the first photographic movement.
It took place between 1888 and 1918, as the first French exhibition on the Pictorialist movement, entitled “La photographie pictorialiste en Europe 1888-1918”, presented in the city of Rennes this year suggested. Pictorialists questioned the nature of the real and the nature of photography. In 1918 Pictorialism gave way to another art and literary movement, the Dada movement.
The name ‘pictorialism’ had long placed photography alongside painting whereas their relationship to one another was ultimately different.
Marc Mélon established the relationship between photography and painting as follows,
“Il ne s’agit pas comme beaucoup l’ont pensé, d’un strict mimétisme entre une photographie complexée et une peinture supérieure devenue le modèle inaccessible de la première. Il s’agit plutôt d’un rapport concurrentiel qui pousse la photographie non à imiter la peinture, mais à s’élever à son niveau et, sur un pied d’égalité, à revendiquer le même prestige. C’est le grand projet du pictorialisme : considérer la photographie comme un des beaux-arts.”
“La présence du mot ‘picture’ dans la dénomination anglaise du mouvement rappelle quel était son objet initial : faire connaître la photographie comme image parmi les autres images.”
So as to make photography’s name among the field of other images (painting, drawing, etching, woodcutting…), the pictorialists advocated complex processes which allowed interpretation and subjectivity. Working on the negatives and prints; using salts, gum-bichromate, charcoal or inks to reproduce this interpretation of the real were very common. They played with various textures of papers and favoured drawing on materials. They scratched, coloured and altered negatives and prints. They explored all the possibilities of the photographic object(s) and thus photography itself. All these processes led to the creation of single prints, which illustrated that a photograph could be as original and unique as a painting. Photographers were no more operators but creators, artists and authors. They succeeded in manipulating and transcending the real, as painters had already done.
Clearly, when negative images were not already blurred, all these manipulations eventually triggered off blur on the general aspect of the accomplished piece. Hard outlines were softened; sharpness and photographic grain stumped by the hand of man, obsessed by the making of artistic print.
If out of focus already existed with the manipulation of the camera – obscura or not –, it is only with the invention of photography in 1839 and with the appearance of the Pictorialist movement that an aesthetic of the blur and subsequently, a form of blur ideology – derived from that regular and constant use of it – emerged in the 1880s.
The flaw of the image – blur – was used as an asset to show that photography was not a mechanic tool but an aesthetic pleasure; a proof that photography’s main function was not strict reproduction but the art of reproduction. The flaw was thus integrated by the pictorialists in order to make the audience admit that photography was an art.
As with any great artistic movement, pictorialists needed a manifesto. They found it in Robert de la Sizeranne’s article “La Photographie est-elle un art?” published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1897.
On the aesthetic of blur, Robert de la Sizeranne concluded,
“Le flou est justement au net ce que l’espoir est à la satiété. Il est l’équivalent, en art, d’une des choses les plus aimées de la vie : cette délicieuse incertitude d’une âme où déjà pénétra l’espoir et où l’assurance n’est pas entrée encore ; où le désir qui commence d’apparaître comme réalisable n’a pas cessé d’être avivé par les obstacles à sa réalisation ; où tout se promet et où rien ne se donne, où tout se devine et où rien ne s’avoue ; où les figures et les paysages et le ciel et la terre et l’amour même apparaissent selon les incertaines suggestions de l’aube, et non selon la sèche définition des midis…”
Robert de la Sizeranne’s laudatory speech on the use of blur shows how significant it was for the pictorialists and mostly how blur was a bridge between photography and art. It was a springboard to elevate photography to the level of art. In his speech, the blurred image entails other images and on top of that, feelings. Robert de la Sizeranne talks about uncertainty, promise, hope and desire. Blurred photographs prompt reactions, emotions which are the ultimate purpose of art. He says blur embodies “la grâce, l’indécision, la fraîcheur, ce que les artistes recherchent d’abord” He puts into words his impressions regarding blurred photographs. By doing so, he accomplishes the work of an art critic and therefore legitimates photography as art.
As a consequence, a new market opened to photography. Photographs, promoted by magazines and revues, were reproduced in postcards for example. Photographs were widely exhibited by societies, like in the universal Exhibitions of Paris in 1889 and 1900, of Anvers in 1894 or of Liège in 1905. They also connected with galleries and sold prints. In 1896, the curator of the National Museum of the United States of America dealt the first purchase of photographs as works of art for a sum of $300. The same year, Belgium opened a photographic Museum. Photographs became cultural products.
Pictorialism succeeded in offering photography a room in the artistic world. Along with other processes, fuzziness enabled photography to find a place among other images.
Little by little, artistic pictures became the ones only produced by the pictorialists. A very few examples aside, like Frederick H. Evans for instance, the majority of pictorialists adopted fuzziness as a necessary condition of their work. “[Les] effets artistiques ne s’obtiennent, en géneral, qu’aux dépens de la minutieuse et scientifique définition des détails”, wrote Robert de la Sizeranne. This sentence completely defines the work of pictorialists but paradoxically announces their inability to evolve.
For the pictorialists, blur became the artistic value and consequently sharpness became the scientific one. Sharp images were the proof of strict representation; a representation without any interpretation, thus no artistic view could be derived from it. Science was facing art and blur sharpness. Sharpness was thought to undermine art photography. On account of their endeavour to promote art, pictorialists refused science and focused images.
Nevertheless, scientific progress reduced the time of exposure under the measure of the second which evidently entailed sharpness. While legitimating blurred pictures as an art, at the same time photographic processes, elements and materials were evolving and thus making photography more accurate. Cameras were getting smaller and easier to manipulate. Lenses were more and more accurate and sophisticated. Films and papers were improving in levels of quality, definition and finishing. In fact, photographic images were to become more and more accurate and sharp.
In 1908, the majority of photographs presented in the annual Linked Ring exhibition were Americans. As a protest, British photographers, whose work had been rejected by the Selecting Committee, organized a “Salon des Refusés” which took place in The Amateur Photographer’s editorial office. As a result, a lot of talented American photographers resigned from the Linked Ring Brotherhood which eventually dissolved in 1909.
At the beginning of the 20th
century, new photographic aesthetics emerged and the goals of the Linked Ring
Brotherhood became somehow obsolete. Besides, photography was not English any
longer but mostly American.
 Quote taken from Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 161
 Alfred Stieglitz, “The Photo-Secession”, 1903 quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 167
 La Photographie Pictorialiste en Europe 1888-1918, Le Point du Jour, 2005. Texts by Patrick Daum, Michel Poivert, Francis Ribemont and Nathalie Boulouch.
 Marc Mélon, « Au-delà du réel, la photographie d’art », p. 87 is quoted in Jean-Claude Lemagny & André Rouillé, Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Larousse, 1998, p. 82-102
 Robert de la Sizeranne, La Photographie est-elle un art ? , La Rochelle, Rumeur des Ages, 2003, p. 16-17
 Robert de la Sizeranne, « La Photographie est-elle un art ? », p. 568, Revue des Deux Mondes, t. 144, 1897, p. 565-595
III. THE EVOLUTION
A. A Reactionary Blur
Pictorialists demonstrated that a mechanical process, the camera, if used in artistic ways could be an art. They used one of the proper characteristics of this tool, the blur, to emphasize the artistic qualities of this process. A mechanical process, photography, was now as artistic as a hand process, painting. Pictorialists pioneered photography, originally a mechanical process, as an art and thus claiming indirectly that any other mechanical processes could be art.
As Michel Frizot stated in La Conférence de l’Université de tous les savoirs, July 11th 2004,
photographie a déplacé la notion d’art. (…) L’invention de la photographie en
tant que processus physique de
production d’images a totalement déplacé la notion d’art en tant que processus manuel et mental de projection, d’un
imaginaire sur une toile par exemple.”
Nevertheless, the pictorialists enclosed themselves in their aesthetic. The constant use of blur, recurrent subjects and framings added to their inability to accept the evolution of the technique of the camera and its elements, i.e. to return to the mechanical process itself, held them up. As a result, they did not progress in their photographic approach and quest.
1. The end of Pictorialism
In British Pictorialism, blur represented both aestheticism and the notion of motion. As most pictorial photographs suggest, blur entailed either the idea of the beautiful or the idea of movement. However, in the 1880s a new vision of motion in relation with sharpness was introduced with the chronomatography by French Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) and the use of the zoopraxiscope by British Eadweard J. Muybridge (1830-1904).
III. A. 1. a) The principle of the pose
Pictorial photography rejected the technique that they found inartistic and scientific and as such, eventually rejected ‘photographic instantaneity’.
Historian of Photography Michel Poivert stated in his article entitled “Le sacrifice du présent, Pictorialisme et modernité” published in the French magazine Etudes Photographiques in 2000,
“Par rapport à cette photographie ‘moderne’ (Albert Londe), qui semble être l’accomplissement d’une longue histoire des perfectionnements, s’ouvre une période de crise de la technique où les propositions ne viennent plus des progrès, mais plutôt des entorses faites à cet idéal technique. Ainsi, l’instantanéité peine à trouver sa place dans les théories et la pratique pictorialistes dont l’ensemble des déterminations esthétiques reposent sur les principes d’une photographie posée.”
In the pictorial tradition, as in painting, a subject must pose whether it is in an interior or exterior environment. It is what we call “to hold the pose”. The aesthetic quest makes the photographer plan every single detail of his picture, composing elements thoughtfully in order to obtain a stylized arrangement. A meticulous care is attributed to the composition and framing, which prevents accidents and the outburst of the frame that later ‘pure photography’ will generate.
Besides, heavy cameras, as opposed to hand cameras, imply a different approach of the subject, which is called the “reference field”, that is to say all that is in front of the camera. Photographers had to choose a place, put their camera down on its tripod, harmonize their composition, insert a plate or film inside the camera if it was not already done, set a focus and finally shoot. Although time of exposure had been reduced to the second and made the natural fuzziness disappear, the principle of the pose did not allow instant photography. It led to formal compositions and prevented capturing images at random. The idea that a subject could have been taken by accident was unthinkable.
Yet, accidents are a major principle in the experience of photography. We have seen that Julia Margaret Cameron’s blur was a fortunate mistake but numerous processes were used to accelerate time of exposure or fix the paper, the majority of which were discovered by accident. French calotypist Gustave Le Gray, who taught photography, found out the process of the “négatif papier ciré sec” by mistake. In 1889, photographer E. Moutrille reported,
“Travaillant un jour chez Le Gray, avec lequel il était en rapports quotidiens, il avait posé par mégarde un pain de cire blanche sur la boîte à brome qui leur servait pour le daguerréotype, dont ils s'occupaient beaucoup. Ils furent surpris de voir se dessiner sur ce pain de cire qui s'était recouvert des vapeurs de brome, la silhouette de la croisée de la chambre qu'ils occupaient. Immédiatement, ils ont frotté de cire une feuille de papier et l'ont traitée comme une plaque daguerrienne ; ils obtinrent ainsi un semblant d'image.”
This anecdote demonstrates how frequently photographic discoveries, or at least improvements, are discovered by chance. To borrow Julia Margaret Cameron’s word, ‘flukes’ provided the renewal of the process and vision.
The principle of the pose brought about a form of control over the composition. Even if photographers did not constantly have a perfect control over the scene they took, they tried to have as much as control as possible in order to induce aesthetic compositions. That control took time. The time to take a picture was long; longer than the one to take a snapshot for instance. What is more, pictorialists gave themselves time to technically produce accomplished pictures. On the whole, their perception of time related to photography was distorted by their practices and triggered off an impossible evolution. “L’instantanéité absolue”, 19th c. theoretician Frédéric Dillaye concluded, “demeure incompatible avec l’art. Celui-ci exige toujours et quand même un certain temps de pose.”
In fact, the essence of pictorial photography starkly contrasts with the modern method which is on the whole centred around instant photography. Even if artists, like American photographer Sally Mann in Immediate Family (1992), What Remains (2003) or Deep South (2005) for instance, still use heavy large-format cameras (in French “chambres photographiques”), the usual practise of art photography is closer to instantaneity. Not to mention actual ‘amateur photographers’ who use their cell phone or digital cameras to take pictures. Interestingly enough, 19TH century pictorial photography in all its aspects and conventions is still related nowadays to art photography, whereas instant photography can both relate to artistic or ordinary practices.
III. A. 1. b) Blur: the representation of movement
Furthermore, the underlying problem with the pictorialist aesthetic, i.e. the use of blur, was that it could evolve no further.
Clément Chéroux distinguished two aspects in blurred photographs. The first one was a lack of focus and the second one a blur brought about by motion. In his article entitled “Vues du train, Vision et mobilité au XIXe siècle” published in Etudes Photographiques in 1996, about this second aspect of blur, Chéroux wrote,
“Ce flou temporel, qui s’est déjà imposé comme un code iconique de la mobilité, semble également susceptible d’apporter à l’image photographique le surcroît de dynamisme que l’instantanéité lui avait ôté. (…) En plein essor de l’instantané, le flou que les photographes s’étaient évertués à chasser de leurs images réapparaît comme l’unique manifestation du mouvement.”
Blur prohibited a new vision for the pictorialist movement. Pictorialists claimed the aesthetic of blur as the representation of movement. Blurred images - that had been rejected from daguerreotypes (1840-1855), appreciated for its accuracy and sharpness, and that photographers had to throw away when making portraits out of the calotype process - embodied movement and to a certain extent, life. As Michel Poivert described,
“(…) les codes de représentation artistique de la vitesse jouent sur les déséquilibres et les flous que nous associons par réflexe à l’instabilité, alors qu’un instantané fige le mouvement et n’en donne finalement pas l’idée.”
“(…) la persistance rétinienne nous fait concevoir le mouvement autrement que comme une suite d’immobilités, et le pictorialiste préfère une convention (…): le mouvement arrêté et non interrompu.”
As such, motion was extensively represented by fuzziness. For example, the picture by American pictorialist Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) representing a woman standing up, looking into a crystal ball placed on a table. A veil of light is drawn from the table to the woman’s dress and can either show the movement of the dress or be the result of manipulation carried out in order to express motion. Another characteristic picture is the one taken by French pictorialist Robert Demachy entitled Speed (1903). It shows a car, racing towards the viewer. A dust trail is outlined at the bottom of the car. The overall fuzziness of the picture refers indeed to the speed of the car.
This idea of blur being used to represent movement became a trap, in the sense that later work from American pictorialists who had begun to adopt a more instant method of capturing the image, was not recognised by British pictorialists who lagged behind.
Contrary to some American pictorialists, British pictorialists, a few examples aside, refused to attempt other possibilities of the camera and integrate new values into their art. Since their only interest was art photography, they consequently prevented themselves from exploring the new possibilities of the medium that they found irrelevant. They could not see the interest in sharp pictures because they went against the idea of trueness, accuracy and real in images. Their opinion, as processes improved, did not change. They were stuck in time. From the status of modern photographers, they became anti-modern, unable to adapt to new techniques and vision.
B. A New Approach of the Blur
1. A new perspective
At the beginning of the 19th century, new personal approaches of photography emerged among British pictorialists. Two figures stood out: Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943) who mostly photographed medieval cathedrals in England and France, who was considered the pioneer of ‘pure photography’ - later called by the Americans ‘straight photography’ - and Alvin Langdon Coburn who specialised in abstract pictures. If Evans did not hold interest in blurred pictures, Coburn, on the other hand, studied, via his Vortographs, a new photographic vision of space and movement, using the blur in a new perspective.
III. B. 1. a) Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortographs
Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was an American-born British photographer. He was the youngest of the Photo-Secessionists and aged 21 became a member of the Linked Ring. At first he was a pictorialist, alongside Stieglitz, and Steichen, and worked for a year in the New York studio of Gertrude Käsebier. In 1904, Coburn left for London with the mission to photograph celebrities. Among his outstanding portraits were those of novelist George Meredith (1904), French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1906), writers Henry James (1906) and George Bernard Shaw (1906).
However, at the beginning of the 1910s, his work took a significant u-turn as he began to be attracted by abstract forms and movement.
 Michel Frizot, « L’image photographique », Conférence de l’Université de tous les savoirs, July 11th 2004, available on website : http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3328,36-371095@51-625919,0.html (consulté le 9.06.2006)
 Michel Poivert, « Le sacrifice du présent, Pictorialisme et modernité », Etudes Photographiques n°8, nov. 2000, available on website: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/document227.html (consulté le 15.09.2005)
 Michel Frizot, « L’image photographique », Conférence de l’Université de tous les savoirs, July 11th 2004, available on website : http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3328,36-371095@51-625919,0.html (consulté le 9.06.2006)
 Information given on website : http://expositions.bnf.fr/legray/reperes/histoire/2.htm (consulté le 20.03.2006)
 Frédéric Dillaye, La Théorie, la pratique et l’art en photographie avec le procédé au gélatino-bromure d’argent, Paris, Librairie illustrée, s. d. 1891, p. 381, quoted in Michel Poivert, « Le sacrifice du présent, Pictorialisme et modernité », Etudes Photographiques n°8, nov. 2000, available on website: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/document227.html (consulté le 15.09.2005)
 Clément Chéroux, « Vues du train, Vision et mobilité au XIXe siècle », Etudes Photographiques n°1, nov. 1996, available on website : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/document101.html (consulté le 01.04.2006)
 Michel Poivert, « Le sacrifice du présent, Pictorialisme et modernité », Etudes Photographiques n°8, nov. 2000, available on website: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/document227.html (consulté le 15.09.2005)
Alvin Langdon Coburn, A Vortograph, 1917 - fig. 3
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912
In a quest of a new photographic form, he took numerous pictures of New York City. His most beautiful achievements are The House of a Thousand Windows and The Octopus from 1912 which both translate a feeling of urbanisation and geometry but also show a distortion in the usual framing of pictures. Stimulated by modern artists such as Picasso, Matisse or Braque who were all exhibited in Stieglitz’s gallery 291 in New York, he produced a series of complete abstract photographs that he named Vortographs. The word was coined by his friend the poet Ezra Pound. Belonging to Coburn’s same generation, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and painter Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) were the leading members of the Vorticist group. The Vorticists published a short-lived journal, Blast, to spread their innovative ideas. They deeply influenced the work of Coburn and his Vortographs amusingly resembled the work of Cubist painters.
Michel Frizot related the Vorticist movement as follows,
“On peut voir le vorticisme comme un courant spécifiquement anglais, apparenté dans l’esprit au futurisme, alimenté d’une réaction contre la pesanteur de l’Angleterre victorienne, et d’un véritable engouement pour les ‘formes de machines, d’usines, de grands et nouveaux édifices, de ponts et de mécaniques’.”
In his article The Future of Pictorial Photography, published in 1916, Coburn referred to pictorialist photographers as such,
“What do our grandfathers say? They hold up their hand in horror, they show their bad manners by scoffing and jeering at something they are too antiquated to understand. It is revolutionary of to-day, however, who is the ‘classic’ of to-morrow”
Then, he continued by asking himself questions about representation,
“(…) why should not the camera also throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried? Why should not its subtle rapidity be utilised to study movement? Why not repeated successive exposures of an object in motion on the same plate?”
As he summed it up quite well, Coburn wanted “to shout, ‘Wake up!’ to many of [his] photographic colleagues” And his Vortographs embodied his shout. “The Vortographs”, Alvin Langdon Coburn explained,
“were made with three mirrors clamped together in a triangle, into which the lens of the camera was projected, and through which various objects (bits of crystal and wood on a table with a glass top) were photographed. The principle was similar to the old kaleidoscope.”
Comparing one of Coburn’s Vortographs to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, we can easily sense the breaking up of the movement in both pictures. Space and motion have been fractured, analysed and reinterpreted in the frame of the picture by each artist.
The general blur of Coburn’s image is entailed by double exposure. Superimpositions create a new perception of motion where outlines are sharp or fuzzy and more or less visible, considering which shot we take into account first. In the first place, superimposed figures and forms confuse the viewer but soon, intellectually captivated, try to make the viewer comprehend the fragmentation of movement.
In the same way the portrait of Ezra Pound taken by Coburn in 1917 shows double exposure. It is as if Ezra Pound was either getting closer to us or backing away from us. A feeling of echo substitutes to the image itself and, as in Coburn’s vortograph, mirror effects produce a mise en abyme of abstract forms (fig. 3) or figurative forms (fig. 4).
Alvin Langdon Coburn, Ezra Pound, 1917 – fig. 4
 Michel Frizot, « Une autre photographie, les nouveaux points de vue », p. 387-398, quoted in Michel Frizot (dir.), Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 23, p. 390
 Alvin Langdon Coburn, “The Future of Pictorial Photography”, 1916, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 205-207
 Ibid. , p. 205
 Ibid. , p. 207
Alvin Langdon Coburn in a letter to Beaumont Newhall, dated April 11, 1947, is
quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography:
Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 204
Former British pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn initiated a new perspective of the blurred image. As the perception of movement evolved, its representation evolved. Blur was thus used in a different way. Fracturing motion caused a fracturing blur. Once pictorial, blur changed into a deconstructing blur. Once smooth and vaporous, it renewed into a structural and repeated aspect.
This new aspect of the blur actually came from various studies of movement which started at the end of the 1870s.
III. B. 1. b) A new representation of motion
In 1878, British photographer Eadweard J.Muybridge, who worked for the American government, proved, with the help of instantaneous photographs, that at some point in a horse’s gallop all its legs were off the ground at once and thus demonstrated that the dominant opinion at that time was false. Put in a zoopraxiscope, another invention of Muybridge which worked as a primitive version of later motion picture devices, still photographs were shown in rapid succession and created the illusion of movement.
Ten years later, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (1842-1890), a Frenchman who moved to Leeds in West Yorkshire, England in 1866, shot the allegedly first motion picture, known as Roundhay Garden Scene. In 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière presented La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon in a public projection and inaugurated the cinematograph, the ancestor of the video camera.
All these progresses altered the photographic vision of movement in the photographers’ mind. Through jerky movements the human eye’s vision of movement was being better represented.
However, Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortographs and the use of blur corresponded to Etienne-Jules Marey’s studies or Thomas Eakins’s studies of motion rather than to the cinematographic perception of it.
Etienne-Jules Marey was a French physician who was first interested in the notion of motion inside the human body, like the blood circulation for example, but who quickly studied the motion of the human body itself. To describe and analyse the human walk and to a larger extent any kind of motion, he developed a chronophotographic technique. In 1882, the chronophotograph was officially born. He liked to call it his “photographic gun”.
As opposed to Muybridge who used several
cameras or lenses that he placed alongside a platform to capture the gallop of
the horse, Marey used the same camera with a rotary shutter and really short
times of exposure to produce the illusion of motion.
Etienne-Jules Marey, Mouvement du saut à la perche, around 1890
In his book entitled Art and Photography, Aaron Scharf reported,
“The resulting images, though lacking the clarity of those by Muybridge, surpassed them by showing each phase of the movement in its correct spatial position relative to all other phases recorded on the same plate. Furthermore, the contiguous and superimposed images of the chronophotograph revealed the continuity patterns of the movement itself.”
Two conspicuous aspects of the use of blur can thus be distinguished: a continuous blur and an interrupted blur.
A first aspect of the blur, the continuous blur is mostly pictorial and is carried out in a continuity of time. From a time marked T1 to another time marked T2, the shutter is continuously opened. A graphic representation of the continuous blur would be a straight line: T1 ---------- T2. A second aspect of the blur, the interrupted blur is carried out in a continuity of time but, as opposed to the continuous blur, a time scattered in portions. From T1 to T2, the shutter briefly opened in a repeated and regular way causing interruptions. Thus, a graphic representation of the interrupted blur would be a scattered line: T1 - - - - - - T2. Yet exactly the same space is apprehended differently. In the sense that, as far as Marey’s scientific and Coburn’s artistic pictures are concerned, space seems to slide whereas it is either the subject or the camera which slide. In a pictorial use of blur, space does not seem to move since the continuity of pose gives the impression of a stabilized space.
In the 1880s, as Pictorialism emerged, a new representation of motion was set with the improvements of the camera. As time of exposure reduced and optical systems improved, scientists studied the evolution of movement in time and succeeded in breaking up the different phases of movement. Alvin Langdon Coburn was one of the rare amateur photographers to use scientific processes in an artistic way. Nevertheless, the debate between art photography and science photography was still vivid and animated. A profound gap was still standing between the two. It was not until the war of Vietnam, at the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s, and the introduction of television in every home that document photography reached the status of art photography and found its ways to galleries. As war photographers acceded to the status of authors and document photography was directly exhibited, instead of being reproduced in magazine like Life for example, document photography lost its primary function, to inform people, and gained the status of art.
In essence, voluntarily blurred images did not give any information. They were thought to be useless, unusable, and later with the pictorialists, artistic. How did the blur, first considered as artistic and assimilated with art photography, progressively become also associated with document photography?
If any picture acts as a document in itself, showing for instance how people dressed, the practice of document photography, that is to say photographs to report a fact or an event, increased during the 20th century. The expansion of newspapers, magazines and publicity generated this practice. This idea of reporting facts, translating a pure reality as it were, emerged with dissident photographers of the Linked Ring Brotherhood and the pictorialist wave such as Stieglitz in the U.S.A. and Frederick H. Evans in England.
III. B. 2. a) Pure Photography
A blueprint of documentary photography is apparent in the work of British photographer Frederick H. Evans who specialized in architectural pictures. In his speech at his exhibition in the Royal Photographic Society in London in April 1900, Evans introduced the idea of ‘pure photography’ as another goal of pictorial photography. Because he said he was not at ease and good enough with the gum-bichromate process and manipulations, he advocated a return to the negative as “the all-important element”. “Plain prints from plain negatives is”, he explained, “pure photography”. He detached himself from a certain vision of the artist photographer “able to use pencils or brushes” which was closer to the painter. He continued,
“I should deprecate, and most strongly, this freedom in control and dodging and altering; it leads one away from the essential value of pure photography, its convincing power and suggestion of actuality.”
In the same way, in 1904 American art critic Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944) expressed,
“I do not object to retouching, dodging or accentuation as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique. Brush marks and lines, on the other hand, are not natural to photography, and I object and always will object to the use of the brush, to finger daubs, to scrawling, scratching and scribbling on the plate, and to gum and glycerine process, if they are used for nothing else but producing blurred effects.”
Some photographers demonstrated that all pictorialist artifices were, in fact, twisting the nature of photography; that they were altering the very qualities of photography. They were thus for a return of pure photography and its own properties: a well exposed negative and print. Photography should now refer to itself and not to painting.
This idea was promoted by Frederick H. Evans who did not care about fuzziness but noticed that
“there are no sharp lines anywhere and yet no sense of fuzziness: at close vision the image is of course distinctly unsatisfactory as regards pure definition: but at a proper distance there comes a delightfully real, living sense of modelling that is quite surprising, and most grateful and acceptable to the eye.”
In the case of Evans’s photographs, the very slight fuzziness was more linked to the transfer from a negative image to a positive image, which implied a lack of precision rather than an open blur, not to mention the imperfections of lenses.
Besides, Evan’s subjects were closer to document photography than to art photography as Pictorialism suggested. He was mostly interested in lines, figures and contrasts in architecture; and reported the beauty of architectural structures. In the quest of form, Evans is closer to Paul Strand (1890-1976) or Edward Weston (1886-1958) for instance. Furthermore, his photographs were documentary in the sense that his subject was documentary. He took a lot of pictures of English and French cathedrals and as doing so, reported the shape but also the state of these monuments. Evans’s photographs are documentary photography in a quest of aesthetic.
As far as the use of blur is concerned, document photography shifted the notion of blur to a new level. As photographers took documentary pictures and blur was unfortunately reintroduced with either the camera shake or the movement of the subjects, it moved away from its purely artistic quality. New practices entailed new visions of the blur.
III. B. 2. b) A documentary blur
Despite the fact that the period in question does not cover document photography which was mostly initiated by Americans like Lewis Hine (1874-1940) or Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) and other photographers like Eugène Atget (1857-1927), I looked at a selection of English photographers which were at the very beginnings of document photography and related them to a new perspective of blurred images. Ultimately, I came to see British war photographer Larry Burrows (1926-1971) as the utter embodiment of documentary photography.
At the 5th International Congress of photography which took place in Brussels in 1910 a definition of the document image was brought forward:
“Une image documentaire doit pouvoir être utilisée pour des études de nature diverse, d’où la nécessité d’englober dans le champ embrassé le maximum de détails possible. Toute image peut, à un moment donné, servir à des recherches scientifiques. Rien n’est à dédaigner : la beauté de la photographie est ici chose secondaire, il suffit que l’image soit très nette, abondante en détails et traitée avec soin pour résister le plus longtemps possible aux injures du temps.”
With regard to the actual documentary photographs and especially the very few shots taken in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Sonderkommando in 1944, reproduced in Georges Didi-Huberman’s book, Images malgré tout published in 2004, this definition does not seem appropriate. Apparently, blurred images do correspond with document photography.
Photographers unknown, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, 1944
Early documentary photography can be found in the work of major English photographers like Roger Fenton (1819-1869) or David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (1821-1848). In the 1840s, in their workshop in Edinburgh, Hill and Adamson, respectively a painter and a chemist, specialized in genre scenes and gathered a substantial amount of prints depicting everyday life in Victorian England. In 1855, at Prince Albert’s instigation Roger Fenton took pictures of the Crimean War to offset the general unpopularity of the war. He was thus considered as the first official war photographer. Similar studies can be found in the work of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) who only focused on the life of his hometown, Whitby, in North Yorkshire; but also in Horace W. Nicholls (1867-1941) who covered the Boer war (1899-1902) in South Africa and worked for the Imperial War Museum; or in Paul A. Martin (1864-1942), French-born photographer whose parents fled to England in the wake of the Franco-Russian war, who worked on London’s life, mostly at night by gaslight.
In the middle of
the 20th century, documentary photography boomed through weekly
publications. Larry Burrows is representative of this period.
Larry Burrows, Near Dong Ha, South Vietnam, 1966
U.S. marines recover a body under fire during the battle for Hill 484
In Larry Burrows’s picture entitled for Life magazine, “Near Dong Ha, South Vietnam”, blur filled half of the right hand side of the picture and the four corners of it. The faces of American soldiers are distorted, trapped in action. As soldiers were in a highly urgent situation - they are holding a dying soldier - owing to the fact they are running and Larry Burrows’s attempt to capture the moment the camera could not be kept steady. Blur is not voluntary but exposes the idea of instability, action, and thus embodies photo reportage. The emergency of the situation echoes Robert Capa’s blurred pictures of the landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach in Normandy in 1944. There is no time to take into account the different parameters of the shot. Reporters just had to shoot pictures before the moment was gone.
Through questioning blurred images in document photography, it is obvious that blur is not linked to control and aesthetic quests anymore, but to a total loss of control and instantaneity. This loss of control over the real is not related to an altered real, as was considered under the Pictorialists, but a real which is escaping and slipping out from the hands of man. The real does not correspond to mental projections of the artist but, in document photography, is associated with a real beyond. In other words, the man is no more an agent of the real but, in the grip of the real.
In that sense, in the document practice of photography, I would regard blur as an action blur. The action blur is either derived from the shake of the camera operator, from the movement of the “reference field” or from a lack of optical adjustment (focus) when taking the picture, due to the emergency of the situation.
 Michel Frizot, « Une autre photographie, les nouveaux points de vue », p. 387-398, quoted in Michel Frizot (dir.), Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 23, p. 390
 Alvin Langdon Coburn, “The Future of Pictorial Photography”, 1916, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 205-207
 Ibid. , p. 205
 Ibid. , p. 207
 Alvin Langdon Coburn in a letter to Beaumont Newhall, dated April 11, 1947, is quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 204
 Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, London, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 227
 Frederick H. Evans, “On Pure Photography”, 1900, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 181
 Ibid. , p. 180
 Ibid. , p. 181
 Sadakichi Hartmann, “A Plea for Straight Photography”, 1904 is quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 187-188
 Frederick H. Evans, “On Pure Photography”, 1900, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 184
 A. Reyner, Camera obscura, cité dans Ve Congrès international de photographie, Bruxelles, 1910. Compte rendu, procès verbaux, rapports, notes et documents publiés par les soins de C. Puttemenas, L. P. Clerc et E. Wallon, Bruxelles, Bruylant, 1912, p.72, quoted in Molly Nesbit, « Le Photographe et l’Histoire Eugène Atget », p. 401, is quoted in Michel Frizot’, Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Bordas, 1994, chap. 24
In the study of the use of blur in English photography of the 19TH century I have distinguished several aspects from its appearance, development and evolution.
One of the major and primary aspects of the blur is its adhesion to the image. In other words, if there is no image/picture – i.e. a physical representation – there is no blur. A blurred image is recognizable as such. If the camera operator accentuates the blur to the extreme, the notion of a figurative or abstract image disappears and consecutively blur as well. As a matter of fact, blur is an in-between process (in French, “processus”); it reveals itself between a focused image and a non image. Besides, blur is closely linked to the manipulation of a camera whether it is a primitive camera, as the study of Vermeer’s painting suggested, or a sophisticated camera. Blur is purely photographic. In fact, it is due to an optical aberration. Theoretically, since the human vision renders the world in its sharp and focused details, blur can only be generated by a mechanical and optical process (in French, “procédé”). Other optical tools such as microscopes, astronomical telescopes or glasses can render the impression of the blur but they cannot fix it on a piece of paper. The camera is thus a perfect example to produce blurred images.
A second aspect of the blur is that it came up in a specific practice of photography which was only artistic. As opposed to the field of the document practice where blurred photographs were considered unusable, the field of the artistic practice legitimated the use of the blur. Conversely, the use of the blur legitimated artistic practices. Despite the fact that photographic processes (“procédés”) produced soft focus images, since the techniques and photographic materials of the 19TH century were long faulty and constantly evolving, a claimed blur did not emerge on the photographic scene before William J. Newton’s speech to The Photographic Society of London in 1853. Strikingly, while the controversy about blurred images emerged, another one broke out, namely the question: “Is photography an art?”. Elizabeth Eastlake, Charles Baudelaire and ultimately Robert de la Sizeranne’s articles are significant of this impassioned debate.
From Julia Margaret Cameron’s early photographs in 1864 to Robert de la Sizeranne’s article entitled La Photographie est-elle un art?, in 1897, I have analysed examples of blurred photographs and connected them to paintings. Julia Margaret Cameron’s spiritual blur; Davison and Hinton’s impressionist blur; Emerson’s attempt to establish the use of a naturalistic blur and artistic photographs as a scientific reasoning; Pictorialists’ obsession of making blurred prints to demonstrate the subjectivity of the artist; all these examples stand out to show how much blur was appreciated, studied and thoroughly explored. At the beginning, blurred photographs expressed a pictorial vision and resembled painting. However, at the beginning of the 20TH century, with the use of hand cameras and celluloid films, photography freed itself from the grip of painting. Furthermore, with the help and endeavour of the Pictorialist movement, photography tried to find its way to art and was eventually accepted as an art. As a consequence, at the turning point of World War I, photography was ultimately its own master and reference.
A third and final aspect of the blur is that it became a trap for a majority of pictorialists. On the contrary, Alvin Langdon Coburn succeeded in diverting the use of the pictorial blur. As the notion of movement altered, Coburn was the first to initiate a new vision of the blur through the making of his Vortographs. Following the example set by Michel Poivert concerning the perception of time by the pictorialists, I thus made a distinction between two visions of the blur, i.e. a continuous blur and an interrupted blur, which can be derived from two different perceptions of time and movement. The continuous blur is mostly pictorial and is carried out in a continuity of time, whereas the interrupted blur is mostly structural and carried out in a continuity of time which is scattered in portions. In order to demonstrate that blur progressively extended to the document practice of photography, I have taken the example of British photographers Frederick H. Evans who was considered the pioneer of ‘pure photography’ and come to see British photographer Larry Burrows as the embodiment of the documentary blur. The practice of photography in the 20TH century actually proved that blurred images could not only be produced by the artistic practice but also by a documentary practice.
To put it in a nutshell, I would regard the blur in English photography of the 19TH century as the major key point that allowed a physical and mechanical process, i.e. photography, to become art.
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On Julia Margaret Cameron: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/cameron/index.shtml
On painting The girl with a pearl earring by
On texts upon photography: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/index.html
On Etienne-Jules Marey: http://www.expo-marey.com/home.html
On William Henry Fox Talbot: http://www.foxtalbot.arts.gla.ac.uk/