Two hundred years after her birth, and 150 years since her first show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron is returning to the halls of the V&A. But despite the mammoth retrospective—with over a hundred pieces and international touring dates scheduled for Madrid and Tokyo next year—you'd be forgiven for drawing a blank if quizzed on the pioneering British artist and great-aunt of Virginia Woolf.
"One of the things that is very remarkable about [Cameron]," says Marta Weiss, the V&A's Curator of Photographs and the engineer behind the new exhibition, "[is] she's probably the only woman in the history of photography to kind of never not be talked about. I mean, obviously she's not a household name, but for anybody paying attention to what's being talked about within photography…"
Born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta in 1815, Cameron's father was a British official of the East India Company; her mother, the daughter of a former page to Marie Antoinette. In 1838 Pattle married Charles Hay Cameron, and 25 years later, received a camera from her daughter and son-in-law. At the age of 48, she began a photographic career that spanned eleven years; her portrait subjects included Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning.
Cameron's gender granted her notoriety by default, thanks to the social mores of the Victorian era and the industry's gravitation towards male photographers. But her aesthetic also drew substantial recognition: A mix of closeup portraits (itself a distraction from the norm) and religious and literary inspired tableaus, she placed huge emphasis on the tactile nature of her process. Images were often deliberately out of focus, while 'damages' such as streaks, smudges, and scratches were unapologetically left as they were.
The past five years have seen the renaissance of analogue photography, specifically but not exclusively among 20-something females—think fashion photographers Harley Weir and Bex Day, and Rookie contributor Eleanor Hardwick. But aside from photography enthusiasts and specialists like Weiss, Cameron's name has been largely excluded from the collective conscious—something that Hardwick herself declares as crazy. "I didn't know her by name, but some of her angelic portraits are familiar (and very beautiful)," the self-taught photographer explains.
"I found out about Cameron because of Lewis Carroll," says Ellen Rogers, an all-analogue photographer who has shot for i-D, Dazed, and the British Journal of Photography. The Alice in Wonderland author took up photography in 1856, nine years prior to his most famous work being published; Cameron was amongst his sitters. "He was very vocal about how he found her to be quite untalented in technical photography which, ironically I find to be her strength when compared to him. He always appeared to me to be a man who was bogged down in technically, as opposed to emotion, where she triumphed."
Weiss notes that such opinions were hardly unusual. "When she first exhibited her work, photographers criticized her really severely. They accused her of not understanding how to use photography and of not knowing how to work a camera, not understanding what she was doing," she says. "There was definitely a lot of sexist undercurrents, some of it was really quite overt [in] the way these critics wrote about her. They were sort of saying, 'Oh here's a woman who doesn't know how to handle this machine, and she would be better off if she actually had someone else take the pictures for her.'"
On the contrary, Weiss says that new research suggests she had worked in the field prior to taking her own image, as opposed to the novice done good myth Cameron herself presented. "[It] makes sense, given how complicated the photographic process was at the time," Weiss explains. "You wouldn't just give somebody a camera on a whim. On the other hand, what's really remarkable is there's no sign of her ever practicing any other art, [though] it would have been completely in keeping with a woman of her social class."
So why has her name slipped off the history books and into relative obscurity? Weiss protests that most people just don't look back far enough—which, to some degree, is a valid argument, if perhaps not the full picture.
"In the past, fewer women photographers were mentioned alongside great male masters in official histories of photography, for instance the histories written by Helmut Gernsheim and Beaumont Newhall," says Dr Alexandra Moschovi, a senior lecturer in History and Theory of Photography at University of Sunderland, UK.
"But since the 1980s, there is considerable scholarly research and literature recording the history of female photographers. In our programs [at the university] the work of female photographers, also outside the Western canon, has always been discussed on a par with that of their male counterparts."
Assuming that ignorance has claimed the better of us and our Julia Margaret Cameron references extend little beyond a throwaway Woolf reference, what is the contemporary appeal and motive for making the trip to her 200th anniversary show?
"These are photographs that are not cold, machine-made objects, but these are handmade objects," replies Weiss, "and I think there's something about that that really sticks to audiences now; they're so different from the kind of super sharp digital images that we're used to seeing. That sense of physical touch… You get a sense of her actually handling these works when you look at the photographs."
Julia Margaret Cameron, supported by the Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, runs from November 28, 2015 to February 21, 2016. More information here.