The world of Photography is gradually changing as more and more women get involved; barriers to success are being broken down and social networking bringing a new gender balance. In times past the few women who gained recognition were innovators who broke the mould often in spectacular fashion; people like Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Mary Ellen Mark and Margaret Bourke-White (to name but a few) brought to society something new and different, something sensational. These women overcame setbacks and prejudice to succeed in a male dominated society, but they also went a step further, pushing boundaries both in terms of subject matter and technique; they helped take Photography into the realm of Art.
|Julia Margaret Cameron||Margaret Bourke White||Mary Ellen Mark||Diane Arbus||Dorothea Lange|
In this post, and in others to come, I hope to give you a glimpse back in time, to look at a few of these remarkable women, how and why they succeeded, and to find out what they added to the world of photography that was so special.
I recently visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and was eager to see their collection of magnificent prints by Julia Margaret Cameron. Being a self-taught artist who took up the camera later in life I was intrigued by this woman who fought against tradition to become one of the pioneers of photography in an age when women did not have careers, especially not in the world of science and technology. In doing some research into her background I have found parallels with my own experience and I hope many women coming into photography nowadays will find her story inspirational.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 -1879) was an innovative and imaginative photographer who put emotion and sentiment before accuracy and technical prowess; she has become renowned for her evocative and insightful images of the poets, scientists and scholars of 19th century England. Using unorthodox techniques she developed a unique style and in a relatively short time created a vast portfolio of dreamy, emotionally charged images quite distinctive from work of other photographers of her time.
Cameron has a fascinating, colourful background; she was born in Calcutta, fourth in a family of seven sisters renowned for their beauty, all that is apart from Margaret, who was considered ‘talented’. Her mother was descended from French aristocracy (indeed her grandfather was supposedly lover to Marie Antoinette) and her father was a British official in the East India Company. The family lived in India and Cameron was educated in India and France; she lived in Calcutta well into her twenties until she married Charles Hay Cameron, an important figure in law reform and education in India and twenty years her senior. In 1836 while still in India she met and became lifelong friends with Sir John Herschel, a prestigious scientist and mathematician who introduced Cameron to photography. Indeed, Herschel discovered and developed the cyanotype, a process leading to the invention of blue prints; over the years he and Cameron shared a passion for the rapidly advancing techniques of photography and it is no wonder that he became a favourite subject in her later portfolio. When the family finally returned to England their home quickly became a gathering place for the intelligentsia of Victorian age bringing Cameron into the social circles of the superstars of her day. Familiar names such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll and Robert Browning sat for Cameron contributing some of the most fascinating, insightful images to her a vast collection of portraits.
Despite raising six children and running a busy household Cameron still found time to get involved behind the scenes in many aspects of her favourite pastime of photography for many years before having a camera herself. Her first camera was a present from her daughter and son-in-law for her forty eighth birthday; with all the children grown, mother obviously needed something to pass the time, they wrote, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater,” referring to her Isle of Wight home.
Only a month after receiving the camera and experimenting “with no knowledge of the art” Cameron produced her first notable image. The image of Annie Philpot was very important to her as she describes “My very first success in photography, January 1864”. “ "I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day: size 11 by 9 inches. Sweet, sunny haired Annie! No later prize has effaced the memory of this joy." As early photographers became more fascinated with the meticulous detail and faster shutter speeds of documentary and landscape, Cameron went in the opposite direction, using deliberate shallow depth of field, soft focus and long exposures to suggest a far more intimate and emotional connection with the subject. In the decade that followed the gift, the camera became far more than an amusement to her: "From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour," she wrote, "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," she wrote. "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." As a photographer myself this passage of her has particular resonance, having the image in your head is one thing but putting it into substance is quite another.
Dame Ellen Terry the famous Shakespearean Actress
Photographed by Cameron when she was only sixteen.
Cameron’s work created quite a stir when it was first introduced; detail-oriented photographers and artists were split in their opinions. Reviewing her submissions to the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1865, The Photographic Journal pronounced, "Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities. A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practise. In these pictures, all that is good in photography has been neglected and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited. We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art." Artists on the other hand greatly appreciated the work and nothing people said was to stop Cameron from taking a different path. As she wrote to Herschel, "I believe in other than mere conventional topographic photography—map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form." "My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art," she declared.
Sir John Herschel
A particularly good example of how she broke with tradition is the series of portraits she made of Sir John Herschel, these are exhibited side by side in the MoMA collection and give one the rather eerie sensation that he is floating in the air like an apparition. Instead of the stiff, formal pose expected for such a revered academic, Herschel was asked to pose with dark drapes around him and sit with freshly washed, tousled hair. The soft side lighting illuminates his hair and features like a ghost. The resulting image is powerful and intense not in depicting him as a scholar but instead it allows the viewer a very personal insight into the minds of both photographer and subject in a way that no amount of detail could portray, recording she hoped “ the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man”.
Cameron was a prolific artist, producing over 1200 pieces in her short career; many of these were staged tableaux depicting scenes from the bible. She involved everyone around her, her vast social circle, her housekeeper, nieces and nephews, the tired rather bored face of some of her ‘angels’ exposes the discomfort and tediousness involved for her sitters. Laura Gurney Troubridge, Julia Margaret Cameron’s niece and frequent photographic subject described her as '…a terrifying elderly woman, short and squat, with none of the Pattle grace and beauty about her, though more than her share of their passionate energy and wilfulness. Dressed in dark clothes, stained with chemicals from her photography (and smelling of them too), with a plump, eager face and piercing eyes and a voice husky, and a little harsh, yet in some way compelling, and even charming…'.
Other than her portraits, Cameron was well known for her staged Pre-Raphaelite styled scenes from the bible and her illustrations for the work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Idylls of the Kings published between 1859 and 1885 consisted of 12 narrative poems retelling the tales of King Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and the knights Lancelot and Galahad. In 1875 Cameron published Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Other Poems, she had produced over 200 large format prints of the various scenes. Looking at the prints of some of these in the MoMA collection I was reminded of black and white silent movies where the drama of the scene is depicted with soft lighting, fabulous costumes and melodramatic poses. The image below may be my personal favourite.
In 1875 Cameron moved back to India where she continued to work until her death in 1879 due to a short illness. Her unfinished autobiography Annals of my Glasshouse written in 1874 was published ten years after her death in 1889. A short career maybe but there is no doubt in my mind that this remarkable woman succeeded in elevating a very technical science to the realm of Art.
There are hundreds of images by Julia Margaret Cameron on the web and I encourage everyone to take a look at them. I also found the below youtube video which is really enjoyable.