Focusing on Julia Margaret Cameron
by Maggie Terlecki
Many photographers have paved the way for the art form of photography that we enjoy today. Stepping away from the convention of using the camera as a tool to document people and places, Julia Margaret Cameron was certainly one of these trailblazers.
Let’s take a look at the time period. It’s 1863. While poor women work for others, Julia, born in India and educated in France, is part of the so-called upper-crust. She has fancy clothes, has a maid, has friends and neighbor’s that are not only rich and intelligent, they are illustrious and well-known.
Julia is married to a man who travels for long periods to India to take care of the family’s coffee plantations. She has 6 children, 5 boys, who all live in India and one girl, named Julia also, who has recently been married.
Her daughter, attempting to cheer her up, gives Julia her first camera in 1863.
She tells her, “It may amuse you, mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater. Freshwater is her home in England; her neighbor is the famous Tennyson. It was meant as “here, keep yourself busy, mum. Don’t worry so much about us; you’ll see, this will be fun”.
Julia turns 48 this year and has no idea how to work the camera, but decides to delve into learning everything she can. It enchants her. She feels like it is a living thing. She says it has a voice, a memory, a vigor.
At this period in time, most portrait photographers attempted only to record someone’s likeness as a document and the images were stoic, severe and not very complimentary. Julia had other ideas, she wasn’t interested in creating boring portraits and instead was obsessed with showing the personalities and inner-qualities of the subject.
Photographers of the period made sure everything was as tack sharp as they could get it.
By mistake, Julia created a portrait with a soft focus. She liked it. She said: “My first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focusing and coming to something to which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon”.
After her first successful image, she describes her joy: “I was in a transport of delight. i ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely made the picture. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it and presented it to her father that same day. Sweet, sunny-haired Annie! No later prize has affected the memory of this joy”.
This began her innovative and unique approach to creating her ethereal images: the soft focus. Her use of the effect is one of the most discussed aspects of her work. Most of her peers said she showed a lack of technique and actually mocked her and could hardly restrain their laughter.
At first, it annoyed her to hear what other photographers were saying, but later she used her technique as a quality to promote her photographs. With brilliant confidence, she pushed forward and understood that it gave her photographs a very distinctive aesthetic quality. She also used plates that were too large for the size of the lens, which created a ‘falling off’ at the edge of the photo.
From what I know about her, her passion simply oozes through history. When she decided to do something, she didn’t just dabble; she jumped right in. On the small property they owned on the Isle of Wright, Julia Margaret did some of her most creative work. She turned her hen house into a studio and the coal shed into a dark room. Her neighbor, Tennyson, brought many famous poets and eminent people of the day to her home. Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin and William Hunt sat in her glass-walled studio to have their portraits taken. She basically exchanged her hens and chickens for poets, prophets and maidens.
She didn’t care that the unladylike fumes clung to her hair or that the chemicals stained her fingers; it was worth it! Most of us have this stereotypical view of Victorian women being stuffy, overly prim and proper; we can see that Julia, left to her own devices, was quite the example of a free spirit.
Although she photographed many illustrious men, her portraits of women, mostly family members, friends and even household servants are her most impressive and outstanding. Posing these women very dramatically with their hair down and very naturally and artistically, she created images of great poetic and romantic beauty.
To get this effect, she used soft daylight and large plate negatives, such as would normally be used in this period for landscape photography. She coaxed her subjects into long sitting periods for slow exposures that would ensure a feminine, soft and dreamy look; sometimes for 3 to 7 minutes. I know that doesn’t seem long, but try to hold a pose for that long, and you’ll soon change your mind . It invariably meant they would move just a tiny bit which helped to create the soft look she is famous for.
Her great-niece (Laura Troubridge) said “We never knew what Aunt Julia was going to do next, nor did anyone else for that matter. Once in her clutches, we were perfectly helpless and stood for hours, if necessary”.
Another of her models said while posing with Cameron’s husband for an image, “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 as if my eyes were coming out of my head and a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a forth 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”.
Let’s take a look at a more in-depth look at some of her photographs.
THE TURTLE DOVES
In this photo, Cameron has posed embracing children with an open-mouthed kiss. She understood the innocence of children but we must wonder, when does the naked body of a child become no longer innocent? The portrait is very sensual and supposedly portrays the ethereal representation of the incorruptible innocence and devotion of love but we have to admit the definite sexuality shown. Some would say that Sally Mann, who portrays her children’s awakening sexuality, owes her concept to Julia Margaret Cameron.
Julia Margaret Cameron was said to be a bland-looking woman, but how interesting and exciting to know someone so bold and daring. In her first year of photography, she did a series of the nine virtues of love. This one, TEMPERANCE, shows the Madonna with a child. The child is meant to represent Jesus. The child is shown as very limp. Is the infant sleeping? Is it dead? Some say she is representing the Pieta. She understood there is no clear distinction between a sleeping child and a dead one, and that as parents, our fears surround that silence. She could have used an adult male, but using a child (as a mother’s child, no matter what age, will always be their baby) connects that feeling with us; that feeling of resigned sadness we see on the Madonna’s face.
We must remember that Julia is educated. She creates concepts from biblical themes, from paintings, sculptures and even poetry.
The poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the inspiration for this image.
“Yea, she doth smile, and she doth weep,
Like a youthful hermitess,
Beauteous in a wilderness.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge’s poem that he never finished, ‘Christabel’ tells the story of a young chaste maiden who is put under the spell of an evil sorceress. . The dark poem, full of rolling fog and lesbian innuendo, was the kind of story that appealed to the Victorian taste of the day; a tale of sexual transgression and moral reparation.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s niece, May Prinsep, is photographed here, before her corruption. Notice the softness behind her head; a suggestion of the unknown beyond. The softness, on purpose, keeps the image beautiful and sensuous but the girl’s face also shows worry.
Here, Mary Hiller, one of her housemaids, portrays St. Agnes, who unlike other virgins, ( from this poem ‘the eve of St. Agnes’ by John Keats ), dreams not of a future husband but instead of a sacred union with Christ. She printed the image quite dark to portray night time and she added a moon ( look at the small white circle scratched into the background scene to the right of St. Agnes’ head).
2nd Study of the Elgin Marbles
The Elgin marbles were called so, not because they were sculpted by someone of that particular name, but rather named after the Earl of Elgin, who traveled to Greece and brought back the sculptures from the Parthenon and sold them to the British Government.
Cameron posed her models, according to the gesture of the headless sculptures, with one looking toward us and the other looking outward.
She was not considered to be plagiarizing as it was a long-standing tradition to copy works by great artists.
The Whisper of the Muse
The painter, G.F. Watts, was not only one of her closest friends but also her chief artistic advisor. In this portrait of Watts, she shows him as a musician as she wanted to portray him as an artist but not necessarily a painter. She believed whatever he did, he did it artistically. The young girl at the right becomes his muse that whispers inspiration. Just look at the amazing composition here. A beautiful meandering diagonal line that flows around the head of the child at the bottom left and glides and curves over Watts and up to the upper right. Simply gorgeous! I have to admit, this is probably my favorite of her images.
A quick look at her working method:
Julia made albumen silver prints from wet Collodion glass plate negatives which was a very complex process ( Oh, when I read about this process, I wanted to kiss my digital camera). Julia was worried about using these dark room procedures. Small errors could ruin a final photograph and she had series of images where the negatives seemed to slowly self-destruct. She had reason to worry, as you can see, several of these prints have many defects because of harsh processes in the dark room. She also worried about the toxicity of using potassium cyanide. She wondered if handling it would slowly make her sick.
As for technical perfection? She was more concerned about the expressive power of composition over technical perfection. She often scratched the surface of a negative or scraped away things or people she felt distracted and even sometimes made composites from her negatives to suggest a new way of reading the photograph. How incredibly avant-garde, don’t you think? I think she’d have enjoyed Photoshop.
In some instances, she even drew on the negative. In this image, of the Madonna and two children, she has used pen and ink that she has then smudged to intensify the eyes and eyebrows of the Madonna.
At the height of her career, 1875, she and her husband moved back to Ceylon (modern Sri-Lanka) to be close to their sons. In January, 1879, Julia Margaret Cameron fell ill from a bad cold and died. We do not know all the specifics, though, or if it was related to the chemicals she used or not. Her photographic career found an abrupt end, as in the time after she moved, she took a mere 30 photos; no portraits, mostly landscapes and peasants in the fields.
She is recognized as one of the most unconventional and experimental photographers of the 19th century.
She once wrote ” I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me and at length, the longing has been satisfied.” How very true.
All images included here are in the public domain.
British Museum of Art
Focusing on Julia Margaret Cameron by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.