Views of tender ardour: Julia Margaret Cameron
Saturday 7th November 2015
A new exhibition of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s work shows her to be a dynamic and creative innovator, says JOHN GREEN
Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum, London SW7
JULIA MARGARET CAMERON was a British pioneer of photography.
Born in Calcutta, the daughter of an official of the East India Company, she was entirely self-taught and only took up the camera as a 48-year-old.
Beginning in 1863, after her daughter gave her a camera, she was only active as a photographer for 15 years.
Yet her legacy is an unrivalled series of portraits of personalities of her time, including poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, painter Holman Hunt, writer Anthony Trollope and astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel.
“When I have had such men before my camera,” she said, “my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.”
Her work is made up almost entirely of portraits, many of her own family, acquaintances and servants, but in unadorned close-up.
No-one laughs, let alone smiles, in her images. This was probably due to the long exposure times needed at the time, when holding such expressions would have been difficult.
The results give her images a gravitas, earnestness and intimacy. She invariably eschews background scenery or props, giving us the face alone against dark backgrounds.
Cameron said: “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour… I began with no knowledge of the art.
“I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass.”
She made her albumen-silver prints from wet collodion glass-plate negatives and was innovative and unconventional in her approach to the technical applications of her medium in order to create images transcending the purely descriptive function of photography.
Her portrait of Herschel, her “teacher and high priest,” conjures a Rembrandtian figure, a Biblical prophet in three-quarter profile, staring into the far distance.
Her portrait of May Prinsep, The Wild Flower, exudes a calmness and serenity reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance portrait yet, perhaps contradictorily, it also has something of the Victorian penchant for romance and melodrama and an uncanny resemblance to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits of Jane Morris.
Cameron’s work is radically different from the conventional portrait. They are not obviously posed or staged.
In a letter to Herschel — in response to criticisms others had made about the lack of focus in some of her images — she wrote: “Who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus… my aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of high art by combining the real and ideal.”
The few photographs she took in Ceylon, where she later settled with her husband, are an intriguing taster of what she could have achieved.
Two show tea plantation workers against a backdrop of the plantation, others are of local people and differ from other “colonial” images of the time in reflecting a naturalistic and observed reality rather than an attempt to record “ethnographic types” or allegorical figures.
This free exhibition will be chiefly of interest to those with an interest in the history of photography.
But it does also transport us into the Victorian world of 150 years ago better than many a painter or other photographer could do.
Runs until March 28, details: sciencemuseum.org.uk.