With the recent advent of child pop stars and young prodigies on Oprah
, we sometimes believe that if we are destined to greatness
, we will have achieved it by the time we are in our twenties
. At the very least, we will have shown budding genius in our childhood and an affinity for our later claim to fame
Julia Margaret Cameron picked up a camera at the age of forty-eight, having no prior photography experience or artistic background. She went on to become one of the key figures in the history of photography, developing a distinct style of portraiture that would teach us how photographs can reveal the personality, as well as the features, of a person. Additionally, it is because of Cameron that we have images of such notables as Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle.
She was born in Calcutta in 1815, in a well-to-do family. Her education and childhood occured in England, where she married Charles Hay Cameron. After living in Sri Lanka for a number of years, the Camerons settled in England in 1848. Although not an artist herself Julia became a member of Kensington's artistic community. Julia was a fairly wealthy upper-class woman, with two grown daughters and the very large house of Dimbola Lodge.
It was her daughter and her son-in-law that gave her her first camera in 1863, thinking she might enjoy something to pass the time while Charles was away on a trip. From that moment on, Cameron was taking pictures. She had her greenhouse converted into a darkroom, and photographed friends, family, servants, guests - whoever she could convince to pose. This was not usually a problem, as she constantly entertained guests from the high society of London, including Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, William Holman Hunt and Robert Browning.
Her portraits were decades ahead of their time, showing an unprecedented emotional sensitivity in the pose and style. Her largest artistic influence was the Pre-Raphaelite school, indicated by her romantic portraits and standards of female beauty. She was interested in capturing the emotional presense of the sitter through a personal expression of their individuality. To do this, she worked with a soft focus, creating a more atmospheric quality to her work. This was in fact going against what other photographers were trying to achieve - because of long exposure times, it was more difficult to create a sharper image. It also differed greatly from the current portraiture style of stiff poses showing off the sitters wealth and status. Julia also worked with the streak marks on her negatives, making them part of the photographs.
Her photographs are close-ups excluding the background or any distracting details, and are often lit dramatically. The resulting photographs are powerful and direct, carefully posed and framed. Cameron considered herself an artist using a camera, and as such didn't limit herself to what others felt photography should be doing. My favorite photographs of hers include her portrait of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth as Julia Jackson - head tilted to one side, we see only her profile and one side of her neck, lit softly. There is a sadness about this picture as well as a quiet beauty. Her portrait of Sir J.F.W. Herschel is stunning, portraying an introspective character, frazzled and weathered but with a distinct wisdom and dignity.
Cameron was a remarkable lady. Most female artists never get the opportunity to enter the canon of high art, and she is a lucky exception. Her wealth and lifestyle afforded her the opportunities to express herself through photography. However, Cameron also had to overcome many things - primarily popular notions of who should and shouldn't be taking photographs, and what those photographs should look like. Her strong personality, vitality, and ability to see the beauty in life allowed her to make an artistic difference in our notions of expressive portraiture, photography, and artistic confidence.