Today one of the great female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron. Seeing some of her works is like stepping back into Pre-Raefaelite times with soft-focused maidens in limp-limbed poses drifting on an ocean of dreams, whilst others are immaculate portraits of great emotion and beauty. I personally am a great admirer of her work as it appeals to my sense of esthetics, although I find I pull directly away from this style in my own photography.
Julia Margaret Cameron was born Julia Margaret Pattle in 1815 in Calcutta, India, to James Pattle, a British official of the East India Company, and Adeline de l’Etang, a daughter of French aristocrats as one of three girls. From a family of celebrated beauties, and was considered an ugly duckling among her sisters. She was educated in France, but returned to India, and in 1838 married Charles Hay Cameron, a jurist and member of the Law Commission stationed in Calcutta, who was twenty years her senior. In 1848, Charles Hay Cameron retired, and the family moved to London, England. In 1860, Cameron visited the estate of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight. Julia was taken with the location, and the Cameron family purchased a property on the island soon after. They called it Dimbola Lodge after the family’s Ceylon estate.
In 1863, when Cameron was 48 years old, her daughter gave her a camera as a present, thereby starting her career as a photographer. Within a year, Cameron became a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her photography, Cameron strove to capture beauty. She wrote, “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
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” Cameron was sometimes obsessive about her new occupation, with subjects sitting for countless exposures in the blinding light as she laboriously coated, exposed, and processed each wet plate. The results were, in fact, unconventional in their intimacy and their particular visual habit of created blur through both long exposures, where the subject moved and by leaving the lens intentionally out of focus. This led some of her contemporaries to complain and even ridicule the work, but her friends and family were supportive, and she was one of the most prolific and advanced of amateurs in her time. Her enthusiasm for her craft meant that her children and others sometimes tired of her endless photographing, but it also means that we are left with some of the best of records of her children and of the many notable figures of the time who visited her.
She was a member of the Arundel Society, which has been set up in the 1850s to promote knowledge of art by means or high-quality reproductions. Participation in this society might have given her the idea of making and distributing her own art. She arranged for a London dealer Colnaghi to sell her prints and intended to revive her family fortunes. Cameron would take pictures for the next 10 years – mainly portraits drawn from the Bible and the writings of Milton and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Cameron’s sister ran the artistic scene at Little Holland House, which gave her many famous subjects for her portraits. Some of her famous subjects include: Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Everett Millais, William Michael Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ellen Terry and George Frederic Watts. Most of these distinctive portraits are cropped closely around the subject’s face and are in soft focus. Cameron was often friends with these Victorian celebrities, and tried to capture their personalities in her photos.During her career, Cameron registered each of her photographs with the copyright office and kept detailed records. Her shrewd business sense is one reason that so many of her works survive today. Another reason that many of Cameron’s portraits are significant is because they are often the only existing photograph of historical figures. Many paintings and drawings exist, but, at the time, photography was still a new and challenging medium for someone outside a typical portrait studio.
In 1859 Tennyson published four Idylls of the King, long poems on topics around King Arthur. Cameron’s friendship with Tennyson led to him asking her to photograph the illustrations to go with the publication. These photographs are designed to look like oil paintings from the same time period, including rich details like historical costumes and intricate draperies. Today, these posed works are sometimes dismissed by art critics. Nevertheless, Cameron saw these photographs as art, just like the oil paintings they imitated.
In 1875 the Camerons returned to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where they still owned a plantation. Julia continued to practice photography but complained in letters 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 were of posed Indian people, paralleling the posed pictures that Cameron had taken of neighbors in England. Almost none of Cameron’s work from India survives. Cameron caught a bad chill and died in Kalutara, Ceylon in 1879.
Cameron’s niece Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson; 1846–1895) wrote the biography of Cameron, which appeared in the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, 1886.Julia Stephen was the mother of Virginia Woolf, who wrote a comic portrayal of the “Freshwater circle” in her only play Freshwater. Woolf edited, with Roger Fry, a collection of Cameron’s photographs. However, it was not until 1948 that her photography became more widely known when Helmut Gernsheim wrote a book on her work. In 1977 Gernsheim noted that although a great photographer, Cameron had “left no mark” on the aesthetic history of Photography because her work was not appreciated by her contemporaries and thus not imitated. But this situation was evidently already changing by then thanks to his popularization of her work, for instance in 1975 Imogen Cunningham had commented “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better.”
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