The First Photographic Backyarder

An enduring discussion topic amongst professional photographers is the supposed rise of “backyard” photographers at any particular time.  The term is often used in a disparaging pejorative manner as if commencing to practice in an industry without qualifications is in some way unethical or even immoral.

Hang on!

Sterling Studios Staff_c1968

Photographers at Sterling Studios; UQ Graduations, Brisbane City Hall, 1968.

A teenage boy gets given a small camera; starts photographing his surroundings and friends; gets a better camera; takes said camera on mountain climbing trips photographing landscapes; annoys his mother by messing up family bathroom (only one in those days) to process black and white films; forced to build darkroom under family home; gets an even better camera and knocks on photographic studio doors looking for work; starts working on evenings and weekends photographing parties and weddings and prints business cards.

Oh dear, I confess to have just given you a potted history of my very own early days in photography?

Poole; Spring Hill 1975

Poole; Spring Hill Studio, 1975.

Mind you I then joined a professional photographic institution, travelled to visit studios in Australia and overseas to gain ideas and compare techniques and styles.  I attended workshops locally and internationally sourcing information from qualified and experienced photographic practitioners.  I discovered that teaching was an excellent way to flesh out my knowledge – if only to stay one step ahead of the demands of intelligent enquiring students.  By mid career I had not only played an active role within Australian photographic education, but had formalised my knowledge by gaining a post-graduate tertiary degree in photographic visual arts.

The first photographers, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, were more inventors than our current understanding of the term photographer.  Their discovery and various improvements from the mid 1820s through to 1839 were by way of experimentation and gradual improvement of their processes.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 1.50.42 PM

Lord Tennyson: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1869, albumen print, 30.5×25.4cm

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 1.59.11 PM

Painting of Julia Margaret Cameron by George Frederic Watts; c1850-1852

Conversely Julia Margaret Cameron  was an untrained photographer who began enthusiastically practicing photography at mid-life aged 48.  She was a dilettante of the highest order – with no background in science and little art knowledge.  Cameron mixed with a literate and exciting circle of acquaintances.  Her early subjects included poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, scientists Charles Darwin and Sir John Herschel and painters, historians and philosophers.

As was common for the period Cameron referenced her knowledge of biblical subjects and ancient history to pose her sitters in theatrical garb mirroring these topics.  In a letter to Herschel she is reported as wanting to “ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty” sic.

As with all Backyarders her initial hobby outgrew its early purpose and she was subsequently selling a large number of prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum and had even established a studio within it’s premises.  Eventually she would put in place arrangements with a print seller to publish and market her photographs.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 1.58.20 PM

A Study of Cenci; Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, Albumen Print, 32.5×25.4cm

Contrasting Cameron with her contemporary Oscar Gustave Rejlander we can see the difference between a practicing professional and a backyarder.  Rejlander was formally trained as an artist in Rome, then set up a portrait business in Britain.  Subsequently he studied the wet-collodion process and slowly converting from painting portraits to photographing portraits.  Eventually he would become famous for works like The Two Ways of Life.

Whilst I am a strong and vocal advocate of formal training for photographers, and will continue with that opinion, it is interesting to note that the back-yarder title has been with us since the invention of my beloved Industry.

Perhaps we should use the term less readily, and with a greater degree of circumspection…


Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 2.50.17 PM

Freddy Gould; 1866, Julia Margaret Cameron, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative.


 This article first appeared in f11 :: for photographers and aficionados

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 2.44.17 PM

One thought on “The First Photographic Backyarder

  1. The gulf between technical competence in photography and artistic achievement has been around for a long time. And it doesn’t matter if the basic skills are acquired by a self-taught “backyarder” or via a formal course at art college.

    A classic case was the lawsuit brought by the famous 19th century photographer Nadar against his brother Adrien. Adrien appropriated the famous name “Nadar” and turned out technically fine but dreadfully undistinguised portraits. The original Nadar wanted his good name back and in the course of the legal case testified:

    “Photographic theory can be taught in an hour, the basic technique in a day. But, what cannot be taught is the feeling for light. . . . It is how light lies on the face that you as artist must capture.”

    I reckon that’s still true today even for backyarders or holders of fine arts degrees,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s