(14/55) Julia Margaret Cameron - photographer


Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) 
 
There will undoubtedly some viewers, who looking at the name of the photographer in the headline (above) and also the image of the photographer, who will regard the photographs presented here and the person who created them as products of their age. Fanciful, flamboyant and perhaps even irrelevant 'echoes' of a bygone Victorian era, when photography was 'primitive' and photographers were not 'sophisticated' or 'clever'.

That point of view could be charitably described as wrong. Or even, much less charitably, narrow-minded. Then (as now) photography was about equipment and about the intent & point of view of the people using that equipment. Then (as now) there was a wide range of creative work being undertaken by photographers across the globe . Then (as now) any limitations imposed by equipment or materials were largely overcome or bypassed by the application of creative ingenuity.

It's perhaps not surprising that these views exist. Our current age is overwhelmingly obsessed with the new. With innovation. With changing products, changing services and constantly evolving ways of doing 'things'. With communicating differently.  Rapidly. And constantly.

As a result, unlike all other eras of our past, we have become as individuals distanced in memory and fact from the recent and not so recent past.
While the growing interest in tracking personal family histories for example, is to be welcomed, it's true to say that in general we are obsessed with the present and the near future with a keenness and focus, that did not I'm sure exist in previous generations.
The past is 'retro', a source of 'kitsch' or fun or puzzlement. But not something fresh. Not something that we can use or learn from.

In this article, I'll be challenging those views and hoping to bring some fresh perspective on the life and work of a woman, whose most significant bodies of work were created over 150 years ago.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) was a British photographer who made her contribution to photography during just eleven years of her life (1864–1875).
She was also a late starter, taking up photography at the age of 48, after having been given a camera as a present.

She was born in Calcutta, India to a British official of the East India Company, and to a mother who was the daughter of French aristocrats.
Although educated in France, she returned to India in 1838  and married a man 20 years her senior.
10 years later, her husband retired and the family moved to London.

Cameron's sister had been living in London and was host to regular meetings in Kensington between well known artists and writers such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Everett Millais, William Michael Rossetti and Edward Burne-Joneso to which Julia Margaret Cameron had frequent access.
In 1860, Cameron visited the estate of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight.Which lead to the the Cameron family buying a property on the island soon after.


Photography

In terms of her photography, Cameron was evidently a gifted and swift learner, becoming a a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland within a year of recieving her first camera.

The basic techniques of soft-focus "fancy portraits", which she later developed, were taught to her by David Wilkie Wynfield. She later wrote that "to my feeling about his beautiful photography I owed all my attempts and indeed consequently all my success".

Her early success was also undoubtedly due to her personal access to leading figures of the time such as  Lord Tennyson, her neighbour on the Isle of Wight, who brought friends to see the photographer.


Alfred Tennyson (1866)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Alfred Tennyson (1865)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Charles Hay Cameron (1864)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Sir Henry Taylor (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Ewen Wrottesley Hay Cameron (1864)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (1867-1868)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Sir John Herschel with cap (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Sir John Herschel (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder

Photography at this time was difficult, potentially dangerous & demanding work for anyone. This was in an age when there was no pre-packaged film so she had to individually coat with chemicals each plate of glass (while wet) expose it, and the processed each exposure immediately.
As if that wasn't enough. The poor sensitivity of the processing chemicals available (compared to modern films) also meant her subjects would need to sit for countless exposures in bright light to create a usable exposure.

And yet, the photographs are she began to make are unusually vivid. The long exposures that were necessary created a blurring of features when the subject moved, and planes of focus shifted around the many surfaces of the face.

Compare for example the 2 images (above) of Sir John Herschel with the one below. There's a sense of life & vibrancy that's more than an accidental fluke.
In fact, one of the reasons Cameron's photographs have remained so popular & distinctive is that her images show Victorians as living, charismatic and individual personalities. 

Rather than using the neck clamps (below) favoured by her contemporaries, she allowed (and one must assume, encouraged) her sitters limited movements during exposures.



Sir John Herschel (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder

What is especially fascinating when viewing Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs en masse,  is to compare the different exposures she made during her sittings.
Compare the 2 images below of the philosopher, writer, & historian Thomas Carlyle.
The way in which his face emerges out of the surrounding darkness, his gaze direct & penetrating is very bold and quite sculptural, capturing the lines and angles of his face in vivid shapes etched by light & darkness.

It's a photograph of an individual. But as a photograph shows clear evidence of a very deliberate act of artistic creation. And that's what we as viewers are responding to nearly 150 years later.

Thomas Carlyle (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Thomas Carlyle (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder

Inevitably perhaps given the innate conservatism of the profession then (and now?) led some of her contemporaries to complain or ridicule the work.
She did receive a lot support however for her work from friends and family.
But even this was tested, as her devotion to for her craft meant that her children and others had to endure her lengthy attempts to photograph others & also to photograph them.

Annie (1864)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder

Photographic illustrations

But conventional portraits were not the only photographs of people that Cameron made.
She also frequently photographed historical scenes or literary works, mimicking to an extent conventional oil paintings of these themes. 
For example, Tennyson asked (commissioned?) her to create images for  his Idylls of the King series of poems. 
These are tough images to critique as they've been routinely dismissed by generations of critics since their creation nearly 150 years ago.

And yet from a purely photographic standpoint there's much to enjoy. The faces, the romantic 'glow' and the shallow depth of focus seem oddly modern despite their affinity with the works of Pre-Raphaelite painters. Also notable, due to the chemicals and papers used is the wide variation in tonal colour between each image from grey to rich amber/ochre hues.

Today you can create a similar look using tools like Instagram to mimic this 'feel'. But when you look at these photographs you're witnessing something much more than just an ephemeral photographic style or look. But the considered work of a true pioneer stretching the photographic tools at hand to create what must surely now be recognised, alongside her pioneering 'straight' photographs as individual works of photographic art.

The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (Cyllene Wilson) 1866
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
The Echo (1868)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
The Whisper of the Muse (1865)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Iago, Study from an Italian (1867)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Sisters (1873)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
The Angel in the House (1873)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Study after the manner of Perugino (1865)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Cupid's Pencil of Light (1870)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Young Astyanax (1866)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Cherub and Seraph (1866)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Angel of the Nativity (1872)
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder

Her last work

In later life, the Camerons moved back to Sri Lanka. JMC continued to practice photography but complained in letters home to friends about the difficulties of getting chemicals and pure water to develop and print photographs. Also, in India, she did not have access to Little Holland House's artistic community. 
She also did not have a market to distribute her photographs as she had in England. Because of this, Cameron took fewer pictures in India. These pictures of posed Indian people (see below) paralleling the posed pictures that Cameron had taken of neighbours in England. Almost none of Cameron's work from India survives. Cameron became ill and died in Kalutara, Ceylon in 1879.


Untitled (Ceylon) 1875-1889
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder
Untitled (Ceylon) 1875-1889
copyright: Julia Margaret Cameron/respective copyright holder

Legacy

In assessing her career I've left the most remarkable fact about this pioneering photographer to last.
For far from being some naive rube, practising photography as some naive amateur as some have claimed, she had a shrewd sense of both the monetary value of the work she was creating and also its lasting historical and artistic value. 

Each of her photographs were registered by her with the UK copyright office. She also kept her own very detailed records. Her business sense is one of the main reasons that so many of her works survive. They are also in many cases the single existing photographic likeness of major historical figures.
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