Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Julia Margaret Cameron: Amateur Ahead of Her Time

Posted in 35mm, art, black and white, film, learning, perception, photography, technique by Jason Gray on March 9, 2012

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was a Pre-Raphaelite photographer whose intentions were to raise photography up to the high standards of “fine art” enjoyed at the time by other mediums like painting and sculpture.  Her soft-focus technique ennobled her portrait photographs, elevating them from mere scientific representation, because it emphasized the spiritual presence of her sitters.

Julia Margaret Cameron; Ellen Terry, 1864.


“My aspirations are to…sacrifice nothing of truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.”` Photographers who shared Cameron’s point of view faced an uphill battle towards elevating their medium, especially from painters of the Salon School in Paris. History painters believed that photographers lacked artistic merit and that the mechanical process of photography took shortcuts around a purer devotion to art. Unfortunately, this idea has persisted to some degree even to this day. In any case, Cameron’s devotion to the medium and her belief in its potential as an expressive vehicle was well ahead of her time. Her exploitation of the camera’s unique visual language, evident in her soft-focusing technique, has been a concern of photographer artists looking for ways to distinguish themselves from their commercial counterparts ever since. Photographers like Francesca Woodman, Uta Barth, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and countless more all owe something of their process to Julia Margaret Cameron.

Francesca Woodman; from Angel Series, Rome, 1977.

As significant as Julia Margaret Cameron’s aspirations as a photographer were, her process to become a photographer was equally so. Cameron did not begin photographing until she was 49 years old.“ At this time in her life, she was given a camera by her daughter, and trained herself in how to use it. Within a couple of years, she already had a mature body of work, and she continued to photograph for only a short period of time (about eleven years“`). Amazingly, in an era of art that was dominated by male practitioners, Cameron carved out a reputation for herself that brought enough acclaim to warrant many high-profile individuals to pose in front of her lens. In some instances, her portraits of these people are their only surviving photographic likenesses. Her subjects included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin, among others.

` Robert Hirsch; Seizing the Light: A History of Photography; 1999. (quote is from Julia Margaret Cameron)
“ Some accounts suggest that she was 48.
“` Wikipedia article, Julia Margaret Cameron.

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