Julia Margaret Cameron
Priyanka Chharia takes you back to the start, and revisits the fascinating fairy tale that was Julia Margaret Cameron.
This story was originally published in November 2014.
Accidents can be beautiful. In fact, photography is perhaps one of the most beautiful accidents that ever happened to me. I still remember the first time that I noticed Julia Margaret Cameron’s work. Interestingly, it was just another serendipitous accident as well. In an instant, I had travelled back to the Victorian era. I was enamoured by the subdued sepia tones of her images. And, in this age of digital reproductions and instant uploads… I felt that this was something unique. In fact, it seemed to me that her photographs, which reeled from an innocent imperfection, were accidents too. And, yes… they were beautiful.
For Julia Margaret Cameron, photography was literally a gift. It was at the age of 48 when she was presented a camera by her daughter, as a means to curb her loneliness. “It may amuse you, mother; to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater,” said the accompanying note from her daughter.
As a beginner, Julia learnt how to photograph simply because of the perseverance of her own efforts. She was born in Kolkata, and lived in India for a long time, before she eventually moved to the United Kingdom in 1948. With time, the camera was no longer just a means of amusement for her, and became much more than a forthright bequest. She began photographing at home. While she transformed her hen house into a studio, she used the coal bin as a darkroom. In a letter to scientist and friend Sir John Herschel in 1864, Julia described her initial struggle, and wrote, “At the beginning of this year, I took up photography, and set to work alone and unassisted. I felt my way literally in the dark through endless failures, and last came endless successes!”
Julia Margaret Cameron marked the beginning of portrait photography, as we know it today. In more ways than one, she was the predecessor to photographers such as Richard Avedon and Steve McCurry, who came to embody the art of portraiture in photography. In fact, she was the first one to introduce the technique of soft-focus images. Her slightly out-of-focus portraits were made from collodion glass plate negatives, and were considered to be a mistake by her peers.However, Julia was more of an imagemaker, than a mere documentarist. Quite often, she would scrape away segments of collodion from the final print,or draw with ink on the same. She did not follow the traditional methods of making prints, and experimented in a number of ways, such that each of her images was unlike the other.
‘‘The camera has become to me, a living thing, with voice, memory and a creative vigour.”
Julia’s residence in South East England was frequented by illustrious Victorian personalities, such as scientists Charles Darwin and Thomas Carlyle. She lived next door to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and upon his request, photographed for his book called Idylls of the King (1856–1885). Virginia Woolf, Julia’s niece and noted writer, penned down the life and times of her aunt in a play called Freshwater (1929). According to the writer, Julia and her circle of “fair women and famous men” were a group of eccentric, yet creative artists. In fact, Julia’s amicable persona pushed her forward as a photographer. She would often make each of her friends and acquaintances pose for hours on end.
“From the first moment, I handled my lens with a tender ardour.”
“What is focus, and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”
Julia Margaret Cameron was the most prominent woman photographer of the 19th century. However, like most artists, Julia’s photography was not understood during her time. She made more than 1000 photographs, before she eventually moved to Sri Lanka.
According to me, Julia is the Louisa May Alcott of photography. While Alcott is best remembered for Little Women (1868), her other publications under the pen name of A M Barnard, show a far more complex side of the artist. Similarly, as a photographer, Julia touched upon a number of themes apart from angelic mothers and children. Some of her portraits of semi-clad children are held evocative by many. In fact, Julia’s images echo in the works of photographers such as Sally Mann, and the inciting portraits of her children. In more ways than one, Julia Margaret Cameron breaks the image of a typical Victorian woman. Even as some might find her work dated and non-relatable, I feel that she is very much a woman of the present; rather than the past.