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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron, 1870,
Henry Hay Cameron
"Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities. A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practise. In these pictures, all that is good in photography has been neglected and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited. We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art."--Illustrated London News , 1865

Such a critical review might serve to discourage many amateur photographers, especially at a time when women were considered as too mechanically inept to "handle" a camera. Julia Margaret Cameron had, in fact, taken up photography for the first time little more than a year before, when she received a camera as a birthday gift from her daughter. She very much consider herself an amateur. But she also considered herself an artist--a portrait artist uninterested in merely recording, as she put it, the "topography" of the face, but the inner beauty of the individual. When she began in the 1860s, her art was far more science and technical protocols than aesthetics. Perhaps because no one except her family took her seriously, Julia Cameron was a self-taught photographer, something virtually unheard of in that day. She had no one to insist her exposures be precisely timed, evenly lit, or sharply focused. She took her ideals from painted portraits, not the work of other photographers.

Henry Hay Cameron, 1864, Julia Margaret
Cameron. Notice the striking differences in
her technique and that of her husband.
Julia Cameron Pattle was born in Calcutta, India in 1815, her father, a British official in the East India Company. Though educated in France, she returned to India in 1838 where she married Henry Hay Cameron, a Law Commission member stationed in Calcutta. He was 20 years older than she. After her husband retired, the family moved to London where she fell in with her sister's social circle of artists and writers. It wasn't until she was 48 years old that she first picked up a camera (no simple common expression) they were literally quite boxy, awkward, and heavy at the time. As any experienced photographer will tell you, over time, a camera tends to become almost a part of the human anatomy--an extension of who the photographer might be. Julia Margaret Cameron essentially became "one with her camera."

My First Success, 1864,
Julia Margaret Cameron
Julia Cameron had no London version of Eastman Kodak to mail her film. In fact, she had no film. Fine photography used wet, glass plates, which the user was obliged to shoot, then develop immediately in any form of makeshift darkroom he or she could cobble together. Being self-taught, most of her first efforts were disastrous. She was known to user her bare hands to wipe the emulsion from a the glass when she deemed her efforts unsatisfactory. It was more than a year after she began before she shot and processed what she termed her first success, a poignant, image of a little girl named Annie (right). The year was 1864. Though still considered an amateur, especially by her peers, Mrs. Cameron threw herself into her art and craft with all the gusto and shrewd business acumen of the most successful professional. She had all her work copyrighted; she opened a two-room studio in the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum; lined up a West End printseller to publish and market her work; and in the short span of just 18 months, managed to sell some 80 of her photographs.
Charles Darwin, 1868, Julia Margaret
Cameron, who often made portraits
of leading thinkers, writers, and artists
of the Victorian era..

Alfred Lord Tennyson,
Julia Margaret Camera. Tennyson
was her next-door neighbor.

The photographic career of Julia Margaret Cameron was tragically short. In 1875, the Cameron family moved back to the far east, Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), and though Julia continued producing her distinctive photographic art, Ceylon was not London. There was little market there for photography of any kind, much less what we'd term today the "art photo." There was also the added difficulty of obtaining the necessary chemicals and the pure water needed for processing. In 1879, she died of what was, merely a bad cold. With her, also died her valuable contribution to the photographer's art. Her work was largely forgotten until her niece, the modernist writer, Virginia Woolf, helped edit a book on the life and work of her Aunt Julia. Culled from some 900 surviving photos, that book, and a later one by Helmet Gernsheim, published in 1948, brought Cameron's work to the discerning eyes and appreciation of a generation of photographers far removed from the technical purists of the 1865 Illustrated London News.



  1. Never heard of her -- but what terrific, evocative work! (And, by the by, her story reminds me of a very nice Swedish movie from a few years back called "Everlasting Moments.")

  2. Michael--

    I was not familiar with her work either until I read that the Met (I think it is) is currently having a retrospective of her work. As for the movie, I'll check it out. Thanks. --Jim