Saturday, August 24, 2013

195: The Self-Empowered Woman: Julia Margaret Cameron

Dear Followers,

I don't know about you, but when I hear the name "Julia Cameron" I automatically think of the brilliant author of "The Artist's Way," a life-changing book for any creative person. So I was surprised to learn that there was an earlier creative woman of the same name who played a pivotal role in the early days of photography. Currently, 38 of her works are on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, and you all know how much I love Self-Empowered Women who were born before 1900...    
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815, and didn't even begin taking photographs until she was 48 years old. But first, let me tell you a little bit about her life. She was born in Calcutta, India, where her father was a British official of the East India Company. Her mother was a descendant of a man who had been a page at the court of King Louis XVI, and was thought to have been one of Marie Antoinette. Julia was born into a family of celebrated beauties, but she was considered the ugly duckling of her family (6:Life Is Not A Beauty Pageant).
She was educated in France, but returned to India. In 1836, she traveled to Cape Town, where she met the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, who became a life-long friend. He is considered to be the one who introduced her to a variety of photographic processes, and he also became the subject of many of her portraits (4: Supportive Someone). Julia returned to India, where she met  (and in 1838) married Charles Hay Cameron, a member of the Law Commission, who was 20 years her senior. Ten years later he retired, and the family moved to London where-- thanks to her sister, Sarah Prinsep-- Julia was able to meet a wide variety of artists and writers. After she visited the estate of Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight, Julia fell in love with the location, and she and her husband bought a home near Tennyson's Estate.
In 1857, the photographer Reginald Southey visited their home, and began teaching Julia even more about photography.  When Julia was 48 years old her daughter and son-in-law bought her a camera, and wrote "It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph..." During those days Julia often entertained her great-nieces Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and the rest of the Bloomsbury Bunch. Julia began to get her subjects to sit for countless exposures as she carefully coated, exposed and processed each wet plate (10: The Critic Within). These long exposures led other contemporary photographers to make fun of her work because of the Pre-Raphaelite feel that they had, i.e., far-away looks, limp poses and soft lighting (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest.)
Even though many critics dismissed her work because of her "out of focus" style, Julia's work received a number of honorable mentions, awards, and she even won a gold medal at the Berlin competition in 1866 (8: Turning No Into Yes). Unlike so  many of her era, Julia was smart enough to register each of her photographs with the Copyright office and keep detailed records. She compulsively persuaded her friends and family to pose for photographs, and thanks to her we have many of the only existing shots of historically important people of her era (7: Magnificent Obsession).
In 1875, the Camerons moved back to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) (14:Selective Disassociation), but she was not able to enjoy photography the way she had before their move. It was hard to get the necessary chemicals and pure water that she needed, and there was no way for her to market or register her work. She was cut off from her family and the large circle of creative friends she'd had in England, and even though she tried to take photographs of posed Indian people, but almost none of her work from those years survived (12: Hard Times). 
Julia caught a bad chill while in Ceylon and died in 1879. Seven years later her niece Julia Prinsep Stephen (Virginia Woolf's mother) wrote a biography of Cameron that appeared in the first edition of the "Dictionary of National Biography, 1886" (13: More Than Meets The Eye). And for those of you who'd like to know more about the premier female photographer of our own era, just click on this link
Looking forward to your comments...

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