The V&A exhibition entitled Julia Margaret Cameron is a comprehensive collection that shows examples from her 3,000 photographs including about 100 of them. There is a catalogue for this exhibition published by the V&A and MACK
“My aspirations are to ennoble Photography …” She was part of a movement at that time to make photography into a “High Art”.
Almost all the prints in the exhibition are Albumen prints from wet collodion negatives.
There is a biographical approach to this exhibition with one of the first images being a photograph of her by Henry Herschel Hay Cameron as well as another photograph titled The Idylls (possibly Idols!) of the Village by O.G.Rejlander who was a contemporary photographer and a close influence.
There are photographs showing the technical obstacles she faced such as honeycomb cracks in The Guardian Angel from 1868; these were probably the result of not washing the negatives enough.
The exhibition gives quite a lot of technical detail relating to the appearance of the prints. For instance, there are two prints of Hosanna from 1865; one shows the clumsy attempt at a double exposure while in the other it is seamless.
Some photographs are defective while others reveal flaws that can enhance the reading of the images such as The Dream from 1869 in which there are two smudged fingerprints in the lower right, forming an inadvertent signature. She saw the potential for success in her mistakes! Her use of out of focus techniques is remarkable even if possibly the result of poor eyesight. However, she did receive lessons from David Wilkie Wynfield who also adopted a soft focus style.
Her soft focus approach proved controversial.
The reason for her being remembered as a great photographer is perhaps on account of the fact that she was able to establish rapport with her sitters! As she said of her iconic image of JFW Herschel in 1867, “… my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them … The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.”
A lot of her photographs are of the great men of her time such as Charles Darwin made in 1868; the image in the exhibition was not printed until 1875.
Although Cameron was not given a camera until 1865, she had experimented with printing photographs before that date such as in Kate Dore, a negative originally made by Rejlander.
Cameron was a flamboyant personality and seems to have cajoled Sir Henry Cole into accepting her photographs for the V&A; he is likely to have seen their value however if only as valuable records of the people of that time.
Sensuality is a theme!
What seems to be called in to question is her use of the camera in more obviously artistic projects, her “flights of fancy!” Even some of her more staunch followers found this questionable.
A lot of her work might now be seen as a classic example of Victorian sentimentalism.
She photographed those around her both family and friends, some of the latter being eminent. Tennyson is one example and he seems to be not just a sitter but in part a collaborator.
The exhibition runs anti-clockwise around the room which has red walls; the captions are printed in white on red card.
She was not entirely successful with her photographic work; although she made money it was not enough to keep her in the UK and she and her husband were forced to return to Sri Lanka where they owned plantations. Her photographs from this latter part of her life are few yet quite unique as she photographed individuals rather than landscape which was the more common pursuit at that time.
Her illustrations for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and other poems were largely ignored and she made her own publication which was not thought highly of. This perhaps had something to do with the conflict between the reality inherent in the photograph and the phantasy of the subjects. Her husband Charles is recorded as spoiling photographs by not being able to control his laughter while posing for them.
Influence and Intimacy is the title of another JMC exhibition, running nearby at The Media Space in The Science Museum; like the V&A exhibition it is free. No catalogue here but I pick up a copy of a book called Julia Margaret Cameron: In Focus in which there are readings of some of the photographs as well as an interesting conversation in which JMC’s first successful photograph is discussed … what made it successfull?
A Daguerrotype of Julia Margaret Cameron is visible on entry but a poorly placed overhead light makes it difficult to see with the reflection being quite intense. This does not seem to a very accomplished Daguerrotype either with much surface detail missing. She holds a young daughter also called Julia who later died giving birth in 1935.
What does this exhibition have that the other one does not? The photographs are sourced differently and include the album she gave to Sir John Herschel in 1864 whom she referred to as her “Teacher and High Priest”. This album has since been dismantled for archival reasons, allowing images to be displayed. The book cover with an inlaid wooden design is exhibited as is the index page of the book.
Although early work, Cameron’s use of a black background to make the face stand out is evident. Her ability to produce work if high standard even in the early days of her career is obvious.
A cabinet contains the lens she used initially which was a wider angle lens and had an aperture of f6. There is also a photograph of Cameron with her two sons, Henry and Charles, which might have been taken by Lewis Carroll. There is another photograph taken of her in later years by H.H.H.Cameron.
Cameron has managed to capture many of the now iconic figures of her age. Not only is the likeness there, one also feels a certain connection with the people there.
Much of what I have written about Cameron in my understanding of the V&A exhibition can be echoed here yet considering that the prints here were grouped together in one book, the consistency of her work comes over as well as the comprehensive scope of her eye. Her work gets a better showing in The Science Museum and her favourite photograph, that of Julia Jackson, looking straight at the camera, is here without the spots and blemishes that the V&A copy has and which is blown up to poster size to advertise the show. The V&A exhibition seems to be saying that Cameron is a great and worthy photographer in spite of her shortcomings as a photographer while in the Science Museum a less critical view is being expressed. Many of the same images appear in both exhibitions but they are original prints and hence differ.
In addition to the album of 92 prints gifted to Herschel, there are a series of 8 prints made in her final years in Ceylon present day Sri Lanka. These are accomplished albumen prints made in difficult conditions and reveal what the local people were like.
Does the Science Museum exhibition of the dismantled album that Cameron gave to Sir John Herschel add anything to one’s understanding of Cameron? Perhaps it reminds us of what an accomplished photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was to have amassed such a body of work. In this exhibition, there is no definite attempt to deconstruct her work and we can not help feel an admiration for the woman and her remarkable photographs that reflect so well the people and the falabilities of her time.
HERE is a link to an appraisal of the exhibition