A Soft Touch: Julia Margaret Cameron
After doing research into Graciela Iturbide, I started thinking about other women photographers. As a woman, and a photographer, I’ve realized that famous women photographers are few and far between. Of course, there are the obvious ones… Annie Liebowitz, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange…
But when you are new to photography (as I am) the names that get thrown around most of the time as inspiration are men. Because of this I have decided to do a series of articles on different women photographers. Some you may have heard of, others hopefully not, and you’ll learn something and be inspired. And, don’t worry, guys… I will eventually find some men to be inspired from as well.
When I came across the work of Julie Margaret Cameron, I knew she had to be first, mainly because she was one of the first photographers out there. She was born in 1815, but didn’t get her first camera until 1863 at the age of 48 as a gift from her daughter.
She says she ran around the house trying to find gifts to give this girl because she was so appreciative. How many of us have felt like that after a photo… when we know we have gotten “the shot”? It just ignites something in us and I think that is what happened to her. She couldn’t stop. She became obsessed with her new-found hobby. She would spend hours taking countless exposures, having her subjects sit while she coated, exposed, and processed each wet plate. She wrote, “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.” She was very lucky to have a supportive family behind her. She took her coal house and made it into a dark room and turned her hen house into her glass house. She had everyone she knew sit for her.
I think one of the reasons she is so important to us today is the fact that she was from a well-connected family. Her friends were people like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Longfellow. She took many photographs of them that we would not have today. She also took a portrait of Alice Liddell who most of you will know as the Alice from Alice in Wonderland.
I found it really fascinating that she has been compared to the Impressionist painters of that time. She was criticized, as they were, for her out of focus, dream-like photographs. In the early days of photography I think people were not so much interested in the art of it, but the accuracy. They saw it as strictly a way to record a scene or a person. Art was still relegated to painting (On a side note, it’s interesting that photography also influenced the Impressionists. Some artists feared they were going to lose their importance with the development of photography so it became more of an art form – painting light rather than painting details). Cameron, however, saw photography as an art form. Her goal was not to record her friends’ and family’s likeness. She wanted to “secure [for photography] the character and uses of high art by combining real and ideal, and sacrificing nothing of truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.” In this, I think, she was truly ahead of her time.
She was greatly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the day and would put together actual “sets” for her portraits. She loved the “soft focus” look she was able to achieve.
Even though she was criticized for her soft photos I love how she made that her style. It didn’t seem to matter what the “experts” thought; she was creating something that was her own. I think that’s important for all of us. There is a point in listening to critics and how we can improve, but we also need to listen to our own hearts and Julia Margaret Cameron was a great example of that.