Women Don't Understand How Machines Work
How the pioneering 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron battled gender discrimination
Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Darwin, (1868) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
How quick men were to assert their superiority over the ‘gentler’ sex in the 19th century. In photography, just as in other areas of art, there were attempts to sideline and dismiss women’s talents.
It’s easy to throw around words like ‘original’ and ‘pioneering’ when it comes to art, but actually the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) genuinely was. Cameron is now the best known female photographer of the 19th century. If you haven’t heard of her there’s no shame in that because there aren’t even many male 19th century photographers whose names roll off the tongue, let alone female ones.
If you’re British though, you will likely have seen one of her works. On the old £10 note there was an image of Charles Darwin, the famous natural scientist of the Victorian period and author of the controversial book on natural selection The Origin of the Species. The image was based on a photo taken by Cameron in 1868.
Charles Darwin on the old £10 note
But as a female pioneer Cameron had arrows in her back. Her radical new style of portrait photography was slated by fellow (male) photographers and art critics, who thought that she simply didn’t understand how the new technology of photography actually worked. Apparently she couldn’t master the machine properly.
To my mind Cameron’s experience as an artist clearly demonstrates the battle that women artists have had to fight for recognition of their talents in a male dominated arena. And still do.
Cameron was born in 1815 in India. She was the daughter of a senior official in the East India Company, a powerful and wealthy British company trading goods between the East and the West. Her mother was descended from French aristocracy. Her parents moved in influential colonial circles, and eventually they settled back in Britain where they became an important part of avant-garde literary and artistic circles in London. So she was born into the privileged ruling elite of Victorian society, and had a good head start with art world connections. That only got her so far though.
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Cameron was in her late 40s when she first started taking photographs in 1864. She was considered an early adopter because photography itself was still quite a new technology. Less than 30 years before she first picked up a camera no one had even heard of photography. The technology was at this stage rather rudimentary and complicated.
An example of the type of camera JMC was using. Image taken at JMC’s house, now Dimbola Museum, on the Isle of Wight.
Early photography was a slow process. The camera that she learnt how to use in the 1860s was huge. It was a rare undertaking to be a photographer back then because you needed all the kit and chemicals, plus you needed to understand the technical process. It wasn’t until the 1890s that the portable camera created the opportunity for a wider group of people to start taking snapshots. So Julia was doing something unusual, and certainly very unusual for a woman.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Annie (1864) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This is one of the first images that Cameron took in January 1864, and she inscribed it ‘my first success’. It was a portrait of a young girl called Annie Philpot. Despite the sepia tone, it looks like a completely modern photograph, and if you said to me that it had been taken yesterday I wouldn’t be surprised.
The photograph is a close-up of the girl’s face and there’s no background so the focus is entirely on the subject. The only other detail is that lovely button on her coat. It's a beautiful portrait. The close cropping of Annie’s face is one of the pioneering aspects of Julia’s work. It simply hadn’t been done before.
When you look at most photographic portraits at this time, you start to see the difference between Cameron’s style of photography and literally everyone else’s. In 1864 if you wanted your portrait taken you would go to the studio of a commercial photographer, who would set you up in a scene surrounded by props. What you ended up with was a rather stiff and ‘wooden’ photograph. The image of the person would be in sharp focus. If it wasn’t then there was cause for complaint.
An example of a typical studio portrait photograph of the time. Oscar Gustav Rejlander, Virginia Julian (née Dalrymple), Lady Champneys (1860-1864) © National Portrait Gallery, London
Cameron on the other hand embraced what is called ‘soft focus’. She wasn’t bothered that her images were slightly out of focus - in fact she embraced that. Cameron was after a ‘beautiful image’ – in other words, she was trying to use this new technology as a tool for making works of art. Instead of a paint brush, she used a camera.
In 1865 she persuaded Henry Cole, the Director of the South Kensington Museum in London, to mount an exhibition of her work. It was roundly criticised. The men who ran the Royal Photographic Society, for example, accused her of not really understanding how to use the technology of photography because her work wasn’t in focus. And there were streaks, smudges, fingerprints, and evidence of dirt and dust caught up on the negatives.
What the critics failed to understand was that Cameron had wanted all of this in her photos. She wanted to show evidence of the artist’s hand, because these were works of art not documentation records. Her work was so radically new in style, technique and attitude that it was misunderstood, and the easiest line of attack for dismissing it was to disparage her ‘skill’ because of her inability to grasp the new technology.
And it made me wonder what the critical reception would have been had Cameron been male? How much does your gender impact on the way new ideas or radical approaches are received?
More on Julia Margaret Cameron
In this 4 minute video I discuss some of JMC’s photos in a bit more detail:
The V&A Museum has the largest collection of JM'C’s original photos. Their website has a trove of information and loads more of her images to see. There's some short videos on there too.
More on Early Female Photographers
One of the accounts that I follow on Instagram is called Sisters of the Lens, which sounds like a power cult sisterhood but actually it’s an account that posts photos by female photographers from 1850 to 1950. Worth a follow if you’re interested in old photography. They dig out some amazing images by female artists that you’re unlikely to have heard of.
Loved this video. I didn't know JMC. Wow what a talent she was, so pioneering and original. She had a lot of challenges - the new technology, the discrimination. Love stories like this.