This Artist Got Her First Camera at Age 48 — And Then Revolutionized Photography


It’s a worn subject that women artists have been historically laughed out of the room, sidelined at the table, and brushed under the rug when trying their hand at male-dominated artistic mediums. The exhibit of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art simultaneously exemplifies and alleviates this history. When Cameron became prolific enough in photography in the 1860s to garner the attention of male colleagues and critics, her work was interpreted as an insufficient understanding of the medium. It was actually a radical re-imagining of it.

Criticized for blurry images and “sloppy craftsmanship,” the judges of the 1864 tenth annual Photographic Society of London exhibition suggested Cameron, “should do much better when she has learnt the proper use of her apparatus.” Undeterred and supported by friends and family, Cameron continued to photograph using this softer technique. And where she was once dismissed she was later praised as an innovative and influential photographer who demonstrated the great possibilities inherent in a medium that does not require years of formal training to understand and use.

Cameron was forty-eight when she received her first camera from her daughter, and had only been using it for one year when she began exhibiting her work. As the museum suggests, despite her delayed entry into the field Cameron’s style was immediately unique. No other professional photographer of the late nineteenth century would portray famous scientist Sir John Herschel, above, without “classical columns, weighty tomes, scientific attributes.”  The professional daguerreotype of Herschel below, taken in 1848, incorporates a staged pose and book for Herschel to rest upon. In contrast with the daguerreotype, Cameron’s photograph is without sharp detail in certain areas including the hair and chin. For contemporary colleagues, this was unacceptable. The Photographic Journal wrote of her 1864 Scottish Photographic Society show, “Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities....In these pictures all that is good in photography has been neglected.” Cameron’s reaction to this review years later was to remark that she would have been upset, “had I not valued that criticism at its worth.”

The exhibit contains a rich collection of supplementary quotes from those who sat for Cameron's photographs in the text accompanying each of the images. Among these artistic subjects were Cameron's friends Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Henry Taylor.

In these images, Cameron's use of light and close cropping make her portraits as much about the subject’s internal thoughts as about the external features, a highly original capitalization on photography’s potential. This is exemplified by the photograph of her niece Julia Jackson, below, who would one day become the mother of Virginia Woolf. Jackson was renowned for her beauty and intellect, both of which Cameron’s depictions vividly capture without the stiff posturing typical of the era. The exhibit alludes to this element of depiction in the accompanying text here.

Cameron was able to do something completely unprecedented in the world of photography without years of practice, yet she was still criticized on the basis of not fully comprehending the art form. The soft lines of Cameron’s portraits imbue them with the movement and life of her sitter, delicate touches that were condemned on the basis of slack artistry when in reality they were innovative choices in detail and mechanics.

This short and sweet exhibit is on view at the Met through January 5, 2014.