Last friday I visited a photography exhibition of the late Julia Margaret Cameron in the science museum, London. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I will be using other sources for the images.
Cameron was born on the 11 of June 1815, in Calcutta and died on the 26th of January 1879. She became known for her portraits of celebrities of her time and her religious and literary themed photographs.
She did not pick up photography until the age of 48 after receiving a camera as a present from her daughter but was short lived spanning only 11 years of her life. She quickly joined the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland after just a year venturing with photography remaining a member until her death.
At the time photography was a very labour intensive art that was also highly dependant on timing and printing techniques. She would keep her subjects sitting through countless exposures as she processed each image. The results created intimate but unconventional photographs, many times blurred due to long exposures or the subject moving as well as on occasion leaving the lens intentionally out of focus. Other photographers of the time used very different applications and this led to her contemporaries sometimes criticising and even ridiculing her work.
Soon after receiving her first camera, Cameron made a photograph she called, ‘first success’, a portrait of Annie Philpot. From that first success she moved on to photographing family and friends. From these early portraits it shows how ‘she experimented with soft focus, dramatic lighting and close-up compositions, features that would become her signature style.’
Photography was a hard and demanding process at the time, and involved potentially hazardous materials. She used a wooden, bulky camera sitting on a tripod; using the most common processing techniques of the time she would produce prints from wet collodion glass negatives. The collodion process is a photographic process invented by Frederick Scott Archer introduced during the 1850s and by the end of the decade replaced the first ‘practical’ photographic process called daguerrotype.
The process involved a glass plate to be coated with photosensitive chemicals in a darkroom and exposed in the camera as it’s still damp. These negatives where then brought back to the darkroom were they would get developed. The final prints were made by placing the negative on a photographic paper and exposing it to sunlight. This painstaking process left room for a lot of error in every step of the way, from making sure the glass plate was perfectly clean, free of dust and be submerged in various stages in chemical solutions making sure it stayed evenly coated.
Cameron embraced her mistakes and began to purposely keep some of her images out of focus. In addition she included imperfections that other photographers of the time would have rejected as mistakes, such as streaks, swirls and finger prints. Later in her career, Cameron began using a larger camera which fitted a 15 x 12 inch glass negative. With her new camera she began a series of close up portraits. These portraits are less precise but show a lot of emotion.
Her sister ran the Little Holland House, an artistic scene which gave her many famous subjects for her portraits such as Charles Darwin, Robert Browning and many more. Keeping to her distinctive closely cropped portraits around the subject’s face and soft focus while trying to capture their personalities.
Her second major division of works consisted of photographic illustrations.
In these she frequently photographed historical scenes or other characters drawn from literary works. These photographs where designed to resemble the oil paintings of that time period. Including details such as historical costumes and draperies.
Julia Margaret Cameron may not have had her work appreciated by her contemporaries but she was a pioneer and her innovation in photography has had an impact on modern photographers, especially her portrait work. She is considered one of the most important and experimental photographers of the 19th century.
Marta Weiss. (2015). Julia Margaret Cameron: Biography. Available: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/julia-margaret-cameron/julia-margaret-cameron-biography/. Last accessed 15th Nov 2015.
Victoria and Albert Museum. (2015). Julia Margaret Cameron: Working Methods. Available: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/julia-margaret-cameron-working-methods/. Last accessed 15th Nov 2015.
Multiple Authors. (2002). Julia Margaret Cameron. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Margaret_Cameron. Last accessed 15th Nov 2015.
“Annie my first success, by Julia Margaret Cameron (restored)” by Julia Margaret Cameron – Scanned from Colin Ford’s Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius, ISBN 1855145065.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Annie_my_first_success,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron_(restored).jpg#/media/File:Annie_my_first_success,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron_(restored).jpg
Beatrice, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, albumen print. Museum no. 944-1913 @ Victoria and Albert
Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘St Agnes’, albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative, 1864 https://www.pinterest.com/pin/19562579602434487/