“My aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of high art.” So said Julia Margaret Cameron and so begins this extraordinary exhibition at the V&A that showcases her unique techniques in photography.
2015 is the bicentenary of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron as well as the 150th anniversary since her first exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum (or the South Kensington Museum as it used to be known).
Showcasing over 100 of her works, the exhibition reveals how she developed her technique and managed to become one of the most celebrated women in the history of photography.
Cameron is best known for her strong portraits but also enjoyed posing her sitters (friends,family and servants) as characters from biblical, historical and allegorical stories – all of which forms a strong part of the display.
Each section of the display opens with a letter written by Cameron to Sir Henry Cole (the Founding Director of the South Kensington Museum) explaining her excitement and joy in what she was doing. It is clear throughout the exhibition that her voice can be heard, helping to develop visitors understanding on the way in which she worked as well as her personal life.
Her work saw her experimenting with lighting and composition techniques – but some of her techniques also saw her work being criticised. For example her choice to only to focus the picture until it was beautiful instead of sharp and the scratches and smudges on her work also drew criticism.
The Photographic News once said that: “We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities.” Yet Cameron was to prove them wrong, particularly with pieces such as May Day – which with the blurred edges adds a dreamlike quality to the overall image, creating a lovely effect.
Yet it is these imperfections that show how even photographs can even be misleading in perfection and how in fact it is more interesting it is to be imperfect as it certainly sparks more interest.
That isn’t to say that Cameron was constantly pleased with her work, she was able to see the flaws in her processes as much as everybody else but she consistently went out and learnt more about her craft to help improve her technique.
It is an exhibition that has been expertly researched and has plenty of detail in it to make it worthy for anyone studying photography to come and pay a visit.
On another note, it is great to see the Victoria and Albert Museum basing an exhibition around their collection and in a sense celebrating the museum’s history.
Julia Margaret Cameron wrote in a letter to Sir Henry Cole about her photographs:”should electrify you with delight and startle the world”. Well in this exhibition that is certainly true.
Julia Margaret Cameron is on display at the V&A from the 28th November until the 21st February 2016. There are also free exhibitions at the Science Museum and at the Dimbola Museum and Galleries on the Isle of Wight, celebrating the bicentenary of the photographer’s birth.