All photos © J. Paul Getty Trust

The image that 19th-century mother-turned-photographer Julia Margaret Cameron proudly described as her “very first success” is an unembellished but extraordinary bust-length portrait of a 7-year-old girl named Annie Philpot. Like most of the prints assembled in the retrospective now at the Getty, it’s a mess of technical fumbles: specks and smudges, uneven tones, and a peculiarly skewed depth of field that leaves the girl’s features soft while revealing arbitrary patches of hair and clothing with perfect clarity. Piercing the disorder, however — and the work arguably more vivid for it — is a presence of remarkable immediacy: Buttoned snugly in a dark cloak, her hair loose and not recently combed, the girl has the air of a traveler, with a gaze that’s lucid and watchful beyond her years.

The photograph epitomizes the gangly, haphazard sort of grace that distinguishes Cameron’s oeuvre. By all accounts an energetic and headstrong woman, she took up photography at the age of 48, after raising six children, and pursued it for only about 15 years, but with an unorthodox fervor that has made her one of the more enduringly compelling figures in 19th-century art. In pursuit of ideals that contemporary cynicism makes it difficult to appreciate — truth, beauty, high moral purpose — she followed in the direction of romantic painting, employing just about anyone she could, from distinguished thinkers to household help, to create dreamy allegories and tableaux vivants. (As her great niece Virginia Woolf memorably characterized it, “Tennyson was wrapped in rugs: Sir Henry Taylor was covered in tinsel. The parlour maid sat for her portrait and the guest had to answer the bell.”) After mastering the basics of the then prevalent wet-collodion process (which produced a glass-plate negative and required immediate developing), she played loose with photographic conventions, relying instead on an apparently instinctive sense of visual logic to orchestrate elements like lighting, focus and depth of field.

The audacity of this disregard is no doubt a large part of what makes the work so appealing to a contemporary audience, and so important to feminist art historians, despite its dated pretensions. As the disparaging tone of Woolf’s description implies, there’s no shortage here of plain old Victorian sappiness: mountain nymphs and whispering muses, roving kings and beggar maids — most ranging in character from quaint to flat. What’s so exciting, however, are the moments when these contrivances slip to reveal a startlingly fleshy body or soulful gaze. In a picture called I Wait/Rachel Gurney (1872), for example, we find that most sentimental of icons — a little girl with angel wings — staring back at us with an expression of precocious boredom, bare arms folded provocatively on what is clearly just a box covered with a sheet of cloth. Though not especially ironic, the image lays bare that delicious tension between body and costume, reality and fantasy, that underscores not only the rest of Cameron’s work but all of life.

Just how much intention it is appropriate to attribute to Cameron’s formal eccentricities is a matter of long-standing debate and one that the 100-plus prints assembled here — speckled, smudged and blurry as they are — offer a rare opportunity to consider. What occurs to me in doing so, surprisingly, is Abstract Expressionism and the way in which the paintings of de Kooning, Pollock and others derive power from their vigorous labor. There’s something similar at play here, except that the labor, in this case, has long been tainted by easy assumptions of female incompetence — the sort that tend to emerge around every new technology. Whether or not Cameron could have made flawless prints, it’s clear that she had little interest in doing so, but reveled, rather, in the tactile messiness of the process. The sublime sensuality that her best prints achieve is hardly separable from that revelry.

This is not to say that Cameron was especially ahead of her time, but simply that she charted a different path. As she herself once asked in a letter, referring to those who disparaged her work’s blurriness: “What is focus — and who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”

Julia Margaret Cameron | At the Getty CENTER, 1200 Getty Center Dr., (310) 440-7300 | Through January 11

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