Monday, November 25, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron and her camera

From Life, Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, Victoria Olsen

A couple of months ago, Anthony Lane wrote an article for The New Yorker about an exhibit of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the website for the exhibit is here).  By the end of the first page, I was wondering, "How on earth have I missed this amazing woman?"  Just in case I'm not the last to learn about her: she was born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta in 1815, her father a member of the British East India Company.  One of ten children, she and her siblings were sent "home" to be educated, in their case to their maternal grandmother, a woman of Franco-Indian descent then living in Versailles.  The seven sisters who survived to adulthood formed a close-knit family unit that their friend William Thackeray called "Pattledom."  The fourth sister, Maria Theodosia, married a man named John Jackson and became the grandmother of Vanessa Bell and Virgina Woolf.

In 1848, Cameron and her husband Charles Hay settled in England with their five children (a sixth would be born later).  For many years the Camerons lived in a house on the Isle of Wight next to Alfred and Emily Tennyson, and the families became the closest of friends.  Anthony Lane related one incident when Tennyson "refused to be vaccinated against smallpox, [and] she stood at the foot of his stairs and cried, 'You're a coward, Alfred, a coward!'"  I think that's when I put the magazine down and went to look for books about her.

Julia Margaret Cameron's daughter Juley gave her a camera in 1863, and within a couple of months she had produced her first finished works.  Photography was then still a relatively new process.  Cameras were heavy and cumbersome, they used fragile glass negatives, they required long exposures when the subjects had to hold completely still, and the chemicals needed for developing images were both expensive and dangerous.  Men were starting to make a name for themselves as photographers, but Cameron was one of only a few women to do so, in an age where women of her class did not work nor promote themselves, as she had to do to sell her images.  Through her family and her friendships, as with the Tennysons, she knew the leading political, literary, artistic, and scientific figures of her day, and many of them ended up in front of her camera.  Cameron produced portraits, but also the allegorical scenes that were then popular, growing out of amateur theatricals and tableaux vivants.  One of her last major works was a series illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

In her lifetime, and ever since, critics have disagreed over Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs.  Her portraits, especially of "great men," have generally been praised, while her staged scenes have been dismissed (especially in the 20th century) as mawkish, Victorian tripe.  More troubling for critics has been her technique.  Cameron played with focus: many of her images are blurry, partially obscured with shadows.  She sometimes brought the camera very close to her sitters, so that their faces fill the frame.  And she was unconcerned about flaws in her negatives, scratches and cracks that then appeared on the finished photos.  She would scratch out something in an image and leave the marks for all to see.  In her own day, many critics took her to task for what they perceived as technical faults.  They wrote above all that she needed to learn how to focus her camera.  Cameron knew exactly what she was doing, and she kept on doing it.  As Victoria Olsen writes, "Cameron could make perfectly focused images, but she did not always want to."  She believed that her camera was catching not just the physical likeness of an individual, but also something of his or her essence, the interior reality.

Anthony Lane mentioned this book in his article, calling Victoria Olsen the "most perceptive biographer of recent years."  Taking that as a recommendation, I requested a copy from inter-library loan.  I have to say, I found this book disappointing and struggled to finish it.  My faith in the author was shaken early on, when she mentions the Pattle family's friendship with William Thackeray, whom they knew in France as well as India and later England.  At one point in 1833, when they were living in Calcutta, Thackeray wrote his mother that he was going to dine with the Pattles and "shall meet pretty Theodosia," to whom "I would not hesitate above two minutes in popping that question wh. was to decide the happiness of my future life," if she only had £11,000.  Olsen says that "Thackeray biographers have long speculated over this reference to a 'Theodosia' Pattle, since none of the sisters was so named."  If so, then neither she nor those biographers have looked closely at the Pattle family tree, handily printed at the front of this book, where Maria Theodosia appears clear as day.

I can't speak to other biographies of Cameron, but I think that, ironically, Olsen mirrors some of the flaws that critics have seen in her subject's work.  The book's focus shifts constantly away from Cameron, to discuss the key people around her at crucial points in her life.  This is one of the biggest challenges that a biographer faces: how to put the subject's life in context, to integrate the other characters into the story, while still keeping the focus on her. Olsen doesn't quite manage it.  I felt that she put Cameron's story on hold, while she turned to the astronomer Sir William Herschel, the actress Ellen Terry, and Cameron's niece Julia, among others. In fact, Olsen frames Cameron's story with her great-niece Virginia Woolf.  There is also a great deal of discussion of the place of photography in history and in art.  In general I find art criticism even less intelligible than literary criticism.

At the same time, there are some surprising omissions in Olsen's account.  While emphasizing the importance of family in Cameron's life, she mentions that both her parents died in India in 1845 almost in passing, without stopping to consider the impact on their daughter.  She spends a lot of time detailing and analyzing Cameron's relationships with her children, but she refers only briefly to her grandchildren, at least one of whom lived with the Camerons in England.  Along the same lines, Olsen reports that when Cameron and her husband relocated to Ceylon in 1875, they traveled with "Julia Margaret's great-niece and adopted daughter Mary Clogstoun, and their maid Ellen Ottingham."  This was the first (and last) mention of an adopted daughter; the maid fares better.  Most tellingly for me, Cameron's death in January of 1879 is discussed in terms of what her sons remembered about it, and how Virgina Woolf recorded it in a play four decades later.  On the other hand, Cameron's husband Charles Hay died two years later, and Olsen describes not only his deathbed but his funeral.  It is only then that we even learn where Julia Margaret was buried.

I also have to mention the most irritating feature of this book, one I find incomprehensible in a book of this type, about an artist and her work.  There are four sections of photographs, by Julia Margaret Cameron and other artists (including one of her sons).  For some reason the images are labeled but not numbered.  Olsen discusses the images in detail and refers back to them frequently, instructing the reader to "[see figure]."  With no way to know which section includes the "figure" in question, and with only a title or description to go by, I spent an inordinate amount of time flipping back and forth between the sections, distractedly trying to find the picture, muttering imprecations on whoever decided to omit this basic aid to the reader.  It was a distraction that for me constantly broke up the flow of the narration.

In the end, I felt that I learned a good deal about Victorian photography and the people who influenced Julia Margaret Cameron, and something about the woman herself.  I wish that the proportions had been reversed, and I will probably look for other books about her.  I also learned that I had in fact read about Cameron before.  There is no mention of Anthony Trollope in Olsen's book, but when I checked my Oxford reader's guide to Trollope, I found that he met her on a trip to the Isle of Wight in 1864, and that he sat for her at least twice during his visit.  Victoria Glendinning mentions this in her biography, describing Cameron as "the pioneer photographer," adding that she "took a marvelous photography of Anthony Trollope."  I guess in this case my own focus was too much on Trollope himself.

I am glad to have finished this book, and after a steady diet of history and biography over the last couple of weeks, I am hungry for stories, as Helene Hanff once said, of things that never happened to people who never existed.


  1. Lisa, I never paid attention to the photographers who took the Trollope portraits. So Cameron took this one. Thanks for teaching me something today. Fay

  2. Oh this sounds wonderful. I love the convenience of being able to pick up my phone and take a picture, but I'm sorry that somewhere along the way we lost the sense of wonder in photography.

  3. Fay, thanks for the link. I found that one credited to Cameron in another Trollope biography (Super's The Chronicler of Barsetshire) - isn't it a great photo?! I haven't yet found the other one.

    Jane, the convenience is wonderful, and the ease of sharing, but as well as the sense of wonder, we're losing longevity. Digital photos are so much more difficult to preserve long-term, not to mention access issues as devices and software change.

  4. Wow, she does sound amazing! I love that she left the scratches in her photographs. Today no one would criticize an artist for that.

  5. elizabeth, photography was still so new, and they were figuring things out, but already there were these rules, and she didn't follow them!

  6. This sounds like quite an irritating biography, but what a fascinating subject. Off to google her photos!

  7. vicki, Cameron is definitely a fascinating character, and that kept me reading. Apparently she's been the subject of quite a few books!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!