This week, I managed to spend an afternoon at Dimbola Lodge and look at the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, (1815-1879). Cameron was from a wealthy background and classically educated in Paris and Versaille – her knowledge of the Bible and classics certainly informs her photographic work. She took up photography at the age of 49 but within a year was exhibiting work at the British Museum. In my opinion this early success reflects a combination of the interest in the relatively new art of photography, (the negative/positive process had only been invented 26 years earlier), the rarity of a female photographer and the illustrious contacts that she enjoyed, many of whom were of course the subjects of her portraits. Some fellow professionals commented that her work was ‘out of focus and unretouched’, comments about which Cameron famously wrote:
“What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”
One of the images that I found the most striking was that of Sir John Herschel in 1867.
Certainly this wild-eyed and wild-haired treatment seems appropriate to a scientist who described himself as:
“subsumed to become a slave of his calling, that of mapping the furthest reaches of the galaxy.”
It is of course difficult for a modern day viewer such as myself to see through the eyes of Cameron or place myself in the shoes of her subjects. For example, I found some of her religious themes and frequent used motifs such as ‘winged’ children , (using swan wings), rather too stylised. But then again, I’m looking backwards from the perspective of the 21st Century when we are all bombarded with thousands of sophisticated images on a daily basis. However, even in the 1860’s Cameron saw the commercial potential of photography and tried, (unsuccessfully), to make money out of her costumed visualisations of Tennyson’s poems, (he was her neighbour).
It’s certainly worthwhile looking at Cameron’s original carbon prints and reflecting on the artistic, technical and societal challenges that she faced as a pioneering photographer. The fact that Dimbola Lodge was her home added to my understanding of her work.
Dimbola Lodge also contains the Olympus Gallery where many famous photographers have exhibited. The current exhibition encompasses the career of music photographer Chris Gabrin and there are some powerful images of Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Blondie and other musical icons of the late 70s and early 80s. The exhibition is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area.