As a woman, I naturally celebrate a little when I look back in the history of photography and see other women who have made significant contributions to my craft. In a field that perceptually (even to this day) seems to be dominated by males, it’s nice to remember that women also had hands in this industry from its early stages. Julia Margaret Cameron is one of those women.
Cameron was a British woman living in the British Colonial system in India in the mid-1800’s. She was a privileged woman, which allowed her to pursue photography on her own terms. Interestingly enough, she didn’t even pick up a camera until she was 49 when her daughter gave her a camera as a gift!
The Pre-Raphaelite movement was finding roots in this era which encompassed feelings that world industrialization was inherently evil and that people needed to be reminded to return their morality back to a belief in God and honor. Cameron wanted her photography to reflect these high art ideals and the “spiritual essence” of her sitters and did so by abandoning the standard techniques of photography.
She shot physically close to her clients and shot on large (11×14) plates. Her exposures were often long (around 5 minutes) but she did not use any clamps or props to keep her sitters movement from affecting the exposure. Instead she let it naturally occur reasoning that it added to the spiritual nature of the image. This was a radical departure in portraiture from the typical belief of the time that every detail of a person’s portrait be visually precise. Cameron also embraced the process of photography as art. She did not shy away from or hide imperfections in the process in her final prints. She willfully printed plates that were broken or cracked as well as showed prints that had drips or imperfections in the emulsion.
Cameron was a forerunner of using selective focusing, throwing all conventional views of needing to have perfect focus throughout, out the window. It was a new aesthetic, to use “out of focus” areas to direct your eye to “in focus” areas and one that I employ in my personal photographic style today. Cameron also was even bolder in sometimes creating images that were intentionally completely out of focus, 100%. She is quoted as saying “my first successes in my out of focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus where all other photographers insist upon.”
I wish I could go back in time and thank Ms. Cameron. Not only for her courage to buck trends, but to do so in a very much male-dominated world. Because of her brave stands, her ideas become part of history.