Being a photographer who is interested in both local history and art history, it seems fitting to look at a few pictures by the one of the most famous British Victorian photographers and sometime Isle of Wight resident, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).
Much has been written and reviewed about Cameron’s work, not all of it in a favourable light. However, I think there is a lot more to her work than meets the eye (semi-unintentional pun). Cameron took up photography seriously at 48, and rather than amassing a body of work over her lifetime, nearly all her major works were taken during an 11 year period while living in England.
Julia Margaret Cameron did have previous photographic experience from experimenting with printing other peoples negatives, creating photograms, collecting photographs and assembling albums to give as gifts as early as 1857 1. In 1863, while living at Dimbola Lodge at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, she was presented with a camera that saw her start to pursue the whole photographic process, from capture to print. Cameron learnt her craft quickly, becoming a member of the Royal Photographic Society only a year later.
Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen, 1864
Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen is to my eyes a very solemn and melancholic image. When I first saw this picture, to me it has a modern feel, especially coming from the shallow depth of field and very un-Victorian pose. The image shows a girl, head against a wall, looking down at the floor. She is wearing a shift off both her shoulders, adorned with subtle lace details on the hem. Around her neck is a necklace that’s being played with, and a slightly blurry hand showing movement. Other details include two rings on her finger and thin bracelets around her wrist. Her expression is contemplative, maybe even sad. Her pose connotes tiredness with her head against the wall. The fact she is playing with her necklace conjurors up rosary beads, deep in thought.
Ellen Terry was born into a family of actors and at sixteen married the artist George Frederic Watts, a close friend of Julia Margaret Cameron and her sisters. Thirty years her senior, the marriage lasted less than a year. Despite contemporary views on this marriage arrangement, it was not unheard of in Victorian times and Terry later wrote that her brief marriage was ‘very happy indeed’ 2. Despite this, Cameron managed to capture a moment when a young girl is transitioning between childhood and womanhood, ‘a mixture of sensuality and innocence’3. As Nina Auerbach, Terry’s biographer (cited in Olsen) wrote ‘it is an emblematic portrait of a young girl’s coming of age into a femininity defined by constraints and self-consciousness’ 4. I think this portrait show off best Cameron’s ability to photograph not only a representation of the person being photographed, but also a much more empathetic view of their inner emotions. Here, We see Terry trying to fit in to polite society being a Victorian wife with all it’s social etiquette, whilst also yearning to be playing with other children.
Victorian photography is often perceived as stuffy and posed, producing an image of a person as a record of them more than anything else. What Cameron did so successfully was to capture their feelings and emotions in a more empathetic yet natural way. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she got close to her subjects, making the viewer part of the picture. We’ll never know how much direction Cameron gave Terry and how much of the picture is Cameron, but the result is a charged portrait that looks surprisingly contemporary.
Sir John Herschel with Cap, 1867
The next photograph is very different in tone, but to my mind still holds to Julia Margaret Cameron’s style of capturing realism in her photography.
I’ve chosen this photo for two reasons. The first being that the photograph’s style and lighting would not look out of place from any modern portrait photographer. The quality of the light to me reinforces how ahead of her time Cameron was with her fastidious application of all aspects of photography. The second is that it’s a picture of John Herschel, eminent polymath and without whom we wouldn’t have the words ‘photograph’, ‘positive’, ‘negative’, or the Cyanotype. He also first introduced Julia Margaret Cameron to photography in 1836 when they met in South Africa.
Like the Terry image before, the overall feel of Sir John Herschel with Cap is quite and pensive. Unlike the Terry image, the tone of the photo is quite dark, with a dark background and cape that Herschel is wearing, with just enough light coming in over his shoulder to provide some separation from the background. This leaves Herschel’s face and hair as the only highlights in the image, drawing your eye into the centre of the picture. Herschel isn’t looking directly at the camera, but off to one side, his eyes give the impression that he is deep in thought, adding a mystery to the picture.
His face is slightly blurry and soft, to many of Cameron’s detractors a sign of her poor technique and ‘amateur’ knowledge of photography. I would argue the exposure, composition, lighting would dispel any notions of ‘poor technique’. But the soft focus look of her work became a signature of Cameron’s style as a by-product of the technical limitations of her early equipment and her eschewing the early conventions of what was conceived to be ‘sharp’. As Mirjam Brusius notes, ”In’ or ‘out of focus’ were not clearly established categories until the end of the nineteenth century, when they became parameters for determining whether photography would be an art’5.
Brusius writes on the Herschel image, ‘Cameron appears to have aimed to capture an impression that could not be captured as a precise and clearly defined moment’6. The image was not meant to be a precise record of the person, but rather an impression of them. Again, as a conscious choice, Cameron didn’t use a stand to hold the subjects head in place7 as was common with many early Victorian portrait photographers. This allowed her subjects to move and be more alive, giving her work a much more dynamic, ‘living’ quality. To me this is why Cameron’s photography still has a resonance over 150 years later. She was photographing people how she saw them; as real people with thoughts and feelings.
So like a shatter’d Column lay the King, 1875
This image of Cameron’s is completely different to her portrait work. It’s an example of Cameron’s tableaux vivant pictures that were heavy on narrative and allegory, and were posed and shot to resemble oil paintings. This was intended to strengthen photography’s status as ‘Art’ by attempting to replicate European painting styles ‘to prove that photography could transcend mere mechanical reproduction, and aspire to high art’8. However, this ended up creating a parody of the art it tried to represent. It was with these works that Cameron drew much criticism, mostly from other photographers and critics. In 1926, Roger Fry who re-evaluated Cameron’s photographs ‘admired the portraits and dismissed the allegorical photographs as mawkishly sentimental’ 9.
In 1875 Alfred Lord Tennyson who lived near the Camerons in Freshwater, asked her to illustrate his Idylls of the King series of poems. Cameron’s resulting photographs to modern eyes appear overly staged and theatrical, almost comical.
In this picture a few things look out of place, notably the fabric representing the sea, the heavy curtain backdrops and the moon scratched into the plate. These however mask other points. The boat in which the scene plays is quite tall, and so paint has been applied to visually reduce its height. The fabric represents the curling the the wake as the boat moves though the water, giving a static picture some movement as it moves from left to right across the picture in true Cameron style. Similarly, the ghosting at the bottom of the image looks more akin to the water reaching up around the boat. Cameron was a great experimenter, and made use of any imperfections in her plates. Whether this was deliberate to create to look of water or a happy accident we can’t tell, but it gives the image a more ethereal quality, which suits the subject.
In the mid 19th century when photography was a burgeoning art form, it was used to photograph ‘real’ subjects; usually landscapes and people. To differentiate the ‘real’ from the ‘not real’, the tableaux vivant photographs were made to look like theatre. I would argue that the image only starts to make sense when viewed not as a photograph in the modern sense, but instead as a theatrical representation of poem that it’s illustrating. Amateur theatrical productions were popular to middle-class Victorians such as Cameron, so it’s easy to make a connection viewing the image as such. To our eyes what is an overly-theatrical photograph, to the Victorians would show that this was an imagined scene of a literary or allegorical subject.
- Olsen, p.134
- Olsen, p.163
- Melville, p.66
- Olsen, p.165
- Brusius, p.347
- Brusius, p.344
- Brusius, p.348
- Olsen, p.197
- Olsen, p.3
- Brusius, p.355
Brusius, M. (2010) Impreciseness in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Portrait Photographs, History of Photography, 34:4, 342-355
Melville, J. (2003) Julia Margaret Cameron – Pioneer Photographer, Thrupp, Sutton Publishing
Olsen, V. (2003) From Life – Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, London, Arum Press
Further Reading and Research
Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A Museum, London
Dimbola Lodge Museum and Galleries, Freshwater Isle of Wight