Julia Margaret Cameron, the '19th century photographer of genius', was
one of the first artistic photographers in history. While photography
was still young she was one of only a few people who realised that the
medium could be used with considerably more originality, imagination and
artistry than had previously been attempted. She knew that as an art,
it could reach up to painting, sculpture, and the other well known arts.
With the amount of work which she managed to produce one would assume
that her career may have lasted over 50 years, but this is not the case.
Julia was 48 years old when she received her first camera, as a gift from
her adult daughter and her husband Charles Norman.
Julia taught herself the skills of photography. Only 3 weeks after receiving
the gift that would change her life, she produced an album which she gave
to George Frederick Watts. This album, which Julia called 39 'of my first
successes in my mortal but yet divine art of photography' is displayed
in the center of the gallery among other contextual material. The images
surrounding, each one portraying a story or fairytale, ironically tell
the story of her life including her friends, her family, and her inspirations.
More than a third of Cameron's photographs are studies of women. Among
them, Alice Liddel (Lewis Carroll's muse), Julia Jackson (Virginia Woolf's
mother), and the 16-year-old Ellen Terry (later the greatest actress of
her generation). In the beginning of her photographic career she made
hundreds of pictures with religious themes. She illustrated scenes from
both the Old and New Testaments, even 'The Apocrypha' and made no less
than fifty variations of the 'Madonna and Child'. She also refers to the
paintings of the Old Masters such as Giotto, Perugino, and Francia. As
much as she loved Renaissance paintings, she also loved poetry and literature.
She illustrated the works of William Shakespeare, the Poet Laureate Alfred
Tennyson, and seventeeth century poets Richard Lovelace and John Milton.
Among many others, she also captured such visitors as Robert Browning
, Sir Henry Taylor, and Charles Darwin.
Her photographs have been called "the world's first close-ups".
They are notable for the intimacy and psychological intensity achieved
by the use of extreme close-up, suppression of detail, soft focus and
dramatic lighting. This 'technique' was harshly critised: 'As one of the
special charms of photography consists in the completeness, detail and
finish, we can scarcely commend works in which the aim appears to have
been to avoid these qualities'. But naturally, the art world consistently
supported her work more than that of any of her contemporaries.
Cameron was born in Calcutta as Julia Margaret Pattle in 1815. After being
educated in Europe, she moved back to India and, in 1838, married Charles
Hay Cameron. In 1875, at the peak of her fame as a photographer, the Camerons
went to live in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon). She photographed many
of her Tamil estate workers and household staff- whom she called 'natives'
or 'peasants'. Although the terms seem disrespectful, it is most likely
due to the language of the time which she lived in. She always photographed
these people with all of their dignity. She took relatively few photographs
there in the four years before she died. Her work was largely forgotten,
until first P. H. Emerson, then Alfred Stieglitz and Roger Fry, rediscovered
it in the early 20th century.
by Grace Giardina