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Monday 2 June 2014

Excellent Women: Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron is one of my favourite photographers, not least because hers is a wonderful story of talent discovered later in life and a woman brave enough to do things her own way.

Born in Calcutta in 1815, Julia's father, James Pattle was an official with the East India Company and her mother, Adelaine de l’Etang, was of French aristocratic descent. However, it was not until she was 48 and living on the Isle of Wight that she took up photography, having been given a camera by her daughter.

Rather than aiming for precision and clarity in her photos as professional portrait photographers did at the time, she wanted to capture the emotion of the sitter. For this she mainly used soft focus techniques, sometimes consciously leaving prints with smudges, printing from cracked negatives and scratching away the emulsion of negatives. Her 'out of focus' effects were often criticized in her lifetime and it wasn't until many years later that people recognised her for the genius she was.

As well as portraits, she loved to create scenes inspired by religion, literature and the classical world. She had no interest in running a commercial studio and never did commissioned portraits, but instead enlisted friends, servants and neighbours to sit for her. Her neighbour on the Isle of Wight happened to be Lord Tennyson who became a lifelong friend and supporter of her work, commissioning her to create photograph 'illustrations' for his book, Idyll of the King.

Tennyson often referred to Cameron's sitters as her 'victims', for posing in those days involved sitting still for long periods of time, as one subject recollects:

“The studio I remember was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen…. The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth – but here I utterly broke down, for Mr. Cameron, who was very aged, and had unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.” 

Cameron's sister connected her to many famous subjects including Darwin, Millais, Rossetti, Burne Jones and Henry Cole, the founding director of the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tennysons' home at Freshwater in Isle of Wight became something of a salon welcoming visitors like Lewis Carroll.

There are lots of lovely books you can buy on Cameron's work, including my favourite, Julia Margaret Cameron's Women. You can see many of her portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, the V&A and at her family home on the Isle of Wight, Dimbola Lodge.

Once you become familiar with her work, you'll spot her influence in many photographers' work, particularly those who still choose to work with analogue film. I'm a huge fan of Ellen Rogers whose work has definite echoes of Cameron's aesthetics - she has some wonderful books of her photographs available on her website. (Coincidentally, and in keeping with Cameron's tradition of working within a circle of artists and writers, Ellen Rogers has shot Molly Crabapple, our last excellent women!)

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