The Victoria and Albert museum describe her as “one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century”. I would agree. But what is also notable about this remarkable lady was her ability to be an artistic icon whilst also possessing entrepreneurial drive, grit, determination and maverick disregard for the rules.
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815 in Calcutta, but her contact with photography came much later on and largely outside of the country which had provided the setting to her childhood and much of her adult life. She was introduced to the invention of the camera in 1842 by British astronomer Sir John Herschel (who was using it to study the skies) whilst on a trip to South Africa, and they remained in contact throughout the rest of Cameron’s career as she would often turn to him for technical photographic advice. Her husband was twenty years her senior and they moved to England when he retired, in 1848. Only then did she acquire a camera of her own, as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law, when she was forty-eight years old.
It was here in England that Cameron was really able to indulge in a hobby that had fascinated her since inception. With very little training, she converted her coalhouse into a darkroom and set up a studio in her chicken house.
Cameron was quick to establish two of her distinctive motifs that are seen repeated throughout the entirety of her work: the close up profile pose and strong, directional lighting. This was extremely unconventional in the 19th century as it lead to inconsistent focus on the faces of her subjects. This was clearly not seen as a problem by Cameron, however, whose favourite prints all fade out to a soft focus. Several even contain a double exposure where an assistant’s arm, part of their face, or an umbrella used to control levels of lighting can be seen darting out of the picture.
That she was born into a privileged standing in society undoubtedly benefitted Cameron hugely. Her parents were wealthy and provided her with great opportunities through her father’s position in the East India Company: she was educated in France and the tour of South Africa was funded by her father. By the time she moved to England with her husband and children, her sisters (she was number four of seven children, all known for their sociability and eccentricity) had already established several literary and artistic connections in Kent and the Isle of Wight where they settled. This circle were to prove a great influence on Cameron. It is no accident that some of her earliest models included Alfred Lord Tennysson and Charles Darwin.
But they all influenced her in a brilliant way – this was not a group who sat about in their salon at Little Holland House sucking up cocktails and eating plover’s eggs. She took advantage of her position. Her husband, a reformer of Indian law and education, was strikingly liberal in his encouragement of her eagerness to learn, and one of Cameron’s most famous series is arranged as illustration of Tennysson’s poems. (It was also Tennysson who provided Cameron with access to prints of the Sistine chapel frescoes which he had decorating his home.) Much of her photography had strong literary themes, borrowing titles and characters from poetry.
Thus the subject matter in itself was novel. ‘Art proper’ was still largely restricted to portraiture, landscape or scenes from a religious or classical text. Cameron was both mocked and admired for her attempts to create allegorical scenes: while the mixture of Greek and biblical themes in the same image were seen as bold, they were also scoffed at for resembling scenes from an amateur dramatics company. Laughing aside, Cameron was creating images that truly baffled Victorian society. Casting models ‘in the manner of the Eglin marbles’ – human forms that were never even named characters let alone real people – was creating a likeness of the already surreal. Much like we would expect of a photographer now, she was creating photographs that were beautiful in themselves, they did not have to have a purpose outside of that.
Cameron wrote to Herschel in 1864 that:
“My aspirations are to enoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal, and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.”
Contrary to the reaction it might receive now, this beautifully phrased idea was not widely greeted with excitement and intrigue, but was heavily criticised at the time by other photographers and establishments such as The Photography News. They saw her technique as amateur and disloyal to the medium and purpose of photography, which was to create accurate representations of the real world. It was not considered an ‘art’.
Thankfully, collectors at the South Kensington museum (now the V&A) saw the value in her work. One in particular, Henry Cole, persuaded the museum in 1868 to give Cameron the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, perhaps qualifying her as its first artist-in-residence.
It is through Cameron’s letters to Henry Cole that we get a glimpse of the main reason for her success. Despite her age, her background and the colonial world she was embodying, it is instantly noticeable in the exhibition how unnervingly modern Julia Margaret was, as a woman and a photographer.
To promote her prints, she used her own hyperbolic descriptions and praise rather than quoting from the assessments of others. In one letter, which accompanied an entire collection ready for display, she explicitly states that she intended her photography to “electrify and startle the world”. What she lacked in modesty, Cameron made up for in assertive confidence: “I sent you my Portfolio. I should be so proud and pleased if this complete series could go into the South Kensington Museum.”
Pushing the envelope wherever possible (outrageously often casting female models in obvious male parts like Cupid), it is still the images themselves that do the talking.
One of the most striking photographs in the collection is one of Cameron’s earliest, before she had even acquired a camera. She had printed a negative of O.G. Rejlander’s (another pioneering Victorian photographer who experimented with combination printing), surrounding it with real ferns before placing the photographic paper on the negative to form a border around the portrait. This hybrid work that combines an image made in a camera with a camera-less technique, shows Cameron’s experimental nature that was to resurface in later works.
Radical with technique, content and style, she rejected mere topographic photography and was even insulted when she was compared to J.J.E.Mayall, who also described himself as a pioneer of High Art Photography. Passionately bold and committed to her work, she embraced mistakes and used them to create a new avenue of expression. In one image of two children embracing, the background appears wavy from the uneven application of chemicals in the development process, so Cameron has etched in small circles and a moon by hand into the negative to enhance the celestial effect.
The last portion of the exhibition is dedicated to these marks of ‘slovenly’ technique: with streaks, scratches and fingerprints visible; as the very ‘defectiveness’ of them shows Cameron to be a more discerning artist than assumed by critics both in her own time and after.
To mark the bicentenary of her birth and the 150th anniversary of her first museum exhibition, the Victoria and Albert museum are displaying over 100 of Julia Margaret Cameron’s works until the 21st February. Admission is free.