The Life & Times Of The Calcutta Born Pioneer Of Portrait Photography

The Life & Times Of The Calcutta Born  Pioneer Of Portrait Photography

Photographs are like mementos of time. It gives us, mere mortals, the superpower to freeze time on paper. I have often seen my grandmother flip through old photo albums of our family and ancestors as she gives into a nostalgic lull. The albums are filled with people and memories which belong to a distant past and viewing them is a way for her to relive those long-lost people and memories all over again. Photographs have this incredible capability to preserve history which got me thinking about the history of photography. Today we shall look at one of the pioneers of closeup portrait photography from British India, Julia Margaret Cameron.

One of the most important portraitists of the 19th century, Julia Cameron was born in Calcutta, India. Her father, James Pattle, was Scottish and an official of the British East India Company. Her mother, Adeline de l’Etang was a French aristocrat. She was, what we can call a quintessentially Victorian lady.

She took up photography at the relatively late age of 48 after receiving a camera as a gift around the year 1863. She converted a chicken coop into a studio and a coal bin into a darkroom and began making portraits. Her sitter included renowned poets such as poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other stalwarts of English society. She has been praised highly in modern times primarily because of her sensitive renderings of female beauty, as in her portraits of the actress Ellen Terry and Julia Jackson; the latter was her niece, who would one day be the mother of the famous modernist writer Virginia Woolf.

L: Portrait of Alfred Tennyson by Camera R: Portrait of Henry Longfellow by Cameron
L: Portrait of Alfred Tennyson by Camera R: Portrait of Henry Longfellow by CameronMoMa

Cameron’s work was controversial in her own time. She was criticized for her so-called bad technique, which ignored conventions as she was more experimental with composition and focus. She is credited with creating the first photographic close-up portraits and influencing the use of diffused focus. The British photographer was also one of the first photographers to produce staged photographs, posing her sitters – friends, family, and house servants – as characters from literary, mythology, religion, and history. Cameron was one of the first photographers to realize how human emotion could be further explored and emphasized through lighting effects, selective focus, and framing.

Portraits by Julia Cameron
Portraits by Julia CameronMoMa
;Madonna and Child' Portrait by Cameron
;Madonna and Child' Portrait by CameronMoMa

Even though her prolific career was short-lived, spanning only fourteen years, over time, critics have appreciated her valuing of spiritual depth over technical perfection and now consider her portraits to be among the finest expressions of the artistic possibilities of the medium.

You can view more of her works here.