A British woman revolutionized the development of portraits. Today two magnificent retrospectives are exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the London Science Museum until February of 2016 in commemoration of her 200th birthday. In addition, there is a viral campaign so Julia Margaret Cameron can appear in the forthcoming £20 banknote.
Queen Victoria ordered to lengthen the palace tablecloths in order to cover the legs of the tables. According to the Queen’s peculiar vision, men would be encouraged to look the legs of women under the table. This situation can give an idea of why chastity meant a virtue that should be protected and why sexual relationships were kept for strict and reproductive purposes only. This relegated women to an exclusive subjugation role and to look after her children and the house. This is the scenario were Julia Margaret Cameron was born (1815 in Calcutta –1879 in Sri Lanka). She is a British woman who belonged to the fierce middle-class society. On her 48th birthday, she received a single-lens camera (Jamin brand) made of wood as a present. It was an onerous present for that time because it was equivalent to several months of work for the working class or for a peasant. This meant a fortuitous fact that absolutely modified the story of Julia Margaret Cameron, turning her into the pioneer of worldwide photography. The most important galleries and museums have exhibited her work, and some of them are: the MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Julia Margaret Cameron was the daughter of a Scottish military and a French woman of aristocratic lineage. Despite the fact that she had a refined education through her grandmother in France, she got married –accomplishing the tradition– with Charles Hay Cameron. He was a renowned jurist. He was 20 years older than Julia and they had six children and other kids that they adopted. These children compensated the prolonged absence of a husband that had to keep watch over his tea, coffee, and rubber plantation that he had in Asia. Although Julia lived in India until she was 33 years old, she moved with her family to the Isle of Wight to the south of England, where she developed most of her work in her house, the Dimbola Lodge (1864-1874). During this period, the old henhouse and the coal deposit turned into her studio and her dark room. This fact was expressed in the book “Annals of my glass house” (1874), where she points out the following: “Everbody sympathized with my new project and the society of chicken and chicks will soon turn into a group of poets, prophets, painters, and beautiful maidens”. Many celebrities visited Julia’s house: John Ruskin, Charles Darwin, G. F. Watts, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Michael Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Henry Longfellow, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Rejlander, and her mentor Sir John Herschel. He was a British physicist and astronomer who coined the use of the term lightpainting in photography. In addition, he urged Julia to persevere in this enigmatic – but tireless – profession, where Julia was ahead of her time; she stood out when taking photos, also when doing the complex photographic processing and the printing in albumen paper.
In a few months, she mastered the collodion process. This technique modified the support and the photographic processing, leaving behind the daguerreotype. This provided autonomy to Cameron’s work and she was not worried about possible lines, scars, and stains on the plates that she used. This explains the reason that she was not accepted in the London Photographic Society, apart from being criticized. Nonetheless, she continued favoring the authentic and the aesthetic for the technical. She demonstrated this by mentioning that “The process of creation is something about commitment and not control”. This statement is supported by the observation of the curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum, Marta Weiss. “She was the first person to intentionally take photographs out of focus,” she said.
Her stubbornness went much further. She experimented with panning and with depth of field. She also alternated between different lenses. She couldn’t stop her research for chiaroscuro; she tried distinct tones and light intensity. Even in the photographic processing, she dared to insert a glass plate between the negative and the paper in order to obtain a dim image, or almost a blurred image. This was a deeply intimate halo.
Through the “flow”, she provided the picture a resource that, when taking away the definition, confronted the prevailing apathy. Determined to rescue the soul, she created atmospheres that were within the poetic and the divine. She shifted the photographic pictorialism by setting up a scenography and allegories marked by the influence of Pre-Raphaelite painters. She generated dramatized narratives that were almost spectral. These equally address the human and the divine, the mythological and the sacred. She showed off her versatility and illustrated the Idylls of the King, book from the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. She had to turn to her family, models, servants, and intellectuals that portrayed mythical characters or people from the Bible. Julia had a clear objective in mind. “I want to exalt photography and to make sure that this is a noble art,” said the artist according to people in a general perspective. Julia has no works about still life or landscapes. She changed the full-body portraits, the full shots for mid shots from short distances, the close-up, and even the Italian shot, that helped her to reach an indescribably magical authenticity. She emphasized this without embarrassment by mentioning that “she felt that she was praying when photographing men that seemed to be cool”.
She found out that London intellectuals were like common people. A third part of her work represented women. She started a voyage in 1864 with the portrait of Annie Wilhelmina Philpot. This was a great opportunity for Cameron to be bold and to create a true mise-en-scène, where she gave instructions to the models not only when striking a pose, but to fix the scene, their outfits, and even their hairstyles. Julia defined her work together with Anna Atkins, Clementina Hawarden, Clarence Hudson White, and Gertrude Kasebier. In 1866, the most paradoxical situation was that Julia Margaret Cameron wrote a letter to Sir Henry Cole, Victoria and Albert Museum founder, in order to propose him her work. “These are photographs that are going to electrify his pleasure and will shake the world,” she longed to provoke this nowadays.