The man in black

4th April 2003 at 01:00
A shock of white hair, dark cap and black cape... Julia Margaret Cameron's portrait of a fellow photographer captures the feral spirit of the sitter as well as elevating photography to high art. Roger Hargreaves takes a look

Nineteenth century photographer of genius is the subtitle of the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It's a knowing allusion both to Cameron's photographic vision and to her tireless pursuit of the exclusively male cultural icons of the Victorian age whom she persuaded to sit before her lens. These included her neighbour in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, the poet laureate Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, GF Watts and Sir Henry Taylor. In the exhibition these stunning close-ups are grouped and placed alongside her portraits of the nascent beauty of children and adolescent young women and the theatrical genre studies in which friends, neighbours and relatives were cajoled into performing tableaux vivants on secular and religious narratives. The exhibition is concluded with a selection of photographs made in Ceylon at the end of her life.

The period of time between what she termed her first success, a portrait of the young girl Annie Philpot, taken in January 1864, to her departure for Ceylon in late 1875, was just 12 years. Her husband's decision to spend what they knew would be their final days in resumption of his earlier career were later affectionately caricatured by their niece Virginia Woolf.

"Old Cameron dressed in a blue dressing gown and not going beyond his garden for 12 years, suddenly borrows his son's coat, and walks down to the sea. Then they decide to proceed to Ceylon, taking their coffins with them, and the last sight of Aunt Julia is on board ship, presenting porters with large photographs of Sir Henry Taylor and the Madonna in default of small change."

In the dozen years that punctuated a life as the mother of six children and the wife of a colonial administrator and plantation owner, Cameron threw herself into photography with an enthusiasm that bordered on obsession. She found in the medium the perfect vehicle for her intellectual and artistic leanings.

Photography in the 1860s was a difficult and expensive pastime. The wet collodion process, introduced in 1851, necessitated large cameras and the preparation of a glass plate negative immediately prior to exposure. These then had to be developed, still wet, moments after the picture had been taken. To this end she converted her coal shed into a darkroom and the glazed chicken house into her studio. Rejecting the convention of allowing light to pour into the studio - thereby producing a soft, flat light and reducing the exposure time - she preferred to direct the sunlight so as to model the features of her sitters and create what has since become known as "the Rembrandt effect". This, together with her preference for close ups, which in turn required slow 76cm focal length lenses, meant her sitters had to hold their poses for between five and seven minutes. "Poor Wilfred," she wrote of her portrait sitting with Wilfred Ward, "said it was torture to sit for so long, that he was a martyr! I bid him be still and be thankful.

I said I am the martyr! Just try the taking instead of the sitting!"

The past 30 years have resulted in a remarkable sea change in the cultural status and commodity value of fine art photography. Cameron's work has frequently been at the centre of this emergent market's defining moments.

In 1974 an album of 94 of Cameron's photographs appeared at one of the early auctions of photographs held at Sotheby's in London and set a then record price for photography. The album had been printed and sequenced by the photo-grapher and given as a gift to her friend and mentor, the astronomer and pioneer of early photography, Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) where they had remained in the family ever since. It is the most important of a number of albums Cameron compiled for a select group of family and friends.

First presented to Herschel in 1864, Cameron took it back three years later so that she could extend and update it, adding examples of her latest work and placing her portrait, "Sir John Herschel with Cap" (1867) on the front page. Herschel recognised in this image the striking originality of Cameron's work and wrote to her describing it as "the climax of photographic art, and beats hollow anything I ever beheld in photography before".

In the portrait study that he so admired, he appears draped in black velvet against a dark background, with intense eyes staring out from a wild dandelion of white hair, blown back over a dark cap. Cameron had requested that before the sitting, Herschel was to wash his hair but leave it uncombed. The photograph is at once both a phrenological study of feral intellect and a visual poem alluding to an astronomer whose work illuminated the night. "When I have such men before my camera," she wrote, "my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man." Her desire to capture the essential spirit of her sitters stands in contrast to the commercial studio portraits of the period which would have typically shown a flat three-quarter length figure leaning on an ever-present book.

"My aspirations are to ennoble Photography", she wrote to Herschel, "and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal and sacrificing nothing of truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty."

The exhibition and catalogue, "Julia Margaret Cameron, 19th Century Photographer of Genius" will deftly puncture forever the populist myth of the amateur enthusiast fumbling away in the glass house and coal shed. In its place is resurrected the spectre of a women driven to push photography to its limits and ensure a status that has only recently been fulfilled.

Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius, National Portrait Gallery until May 26. Admission pound;6pound;4 concessionsOpening times: Monday-Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday: 10am-6pm. Late Opening Thursday-Friday: 10am-9pmTel (recorded information): 020 7312 2463 Roger Hargreaves is photography education officer at the National Portrait Gallery

Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879

Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta in 1815. After being educated in Europe, she returned to the Cape of Good Hope in 1836. In 1838, she married Charles Hay Cameron and, on his retirement in 1848, they moved to London where she became part of Kensington's artistic community including poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. The gift of a camera in 1863 sparked her enthusiasm and, within a year, she had begun to present her friends with albums of her work and was elected a member of the Photographic Society in London. In 1875, at the peak of her fame, the Camerons departed for Ceylon for good.

Lesson ideas

Key stage 1

Explore identity through portraits. Make a list of feelings and emotions and ask pupils to act them out. Record them on a digital camera and view on the computer.

Examine the difference between a photograph and a drawing. Cut out photographs from magazines, stick them down on a piece of paper and have pupils extend beyond the picture through drawing.

Key stage 2

The Victorians went to great lengths to collect and assemble albums.

Discuss how pupils collect photographs, eg family albums, football sticker books. From newspapers and magazines, collect and organise portraits of different types of professions: sports stars, politicians, actors and scientists.

On an A3 sheet of paper draw a template of a large oval. Have pupils bring in a school photograph. Ask them to copy it in black and white using pencils. Then ask them to decorate the outside of the oval using coloured pens in the style of Victorian decorative album designs.

Key stage 3

Make a pinhole camera using a box with a lid. Find details at http:idea.uwosh.edunickpinholephoto.htm Key stage 4

Compare Julia Margaret Cameron's work with contemporary photographers such as Rankin Waddell, Annie Leibovitz and Cindy Sherman.

Using photography and painting have students make self-portraits casting themselves into the role of a professional type, eg the poet, scientist, author, teacher. Explore whether this can be achieved without relying on obvious props.

The National Portrait Julia Margaret Cameron Trust of Photography: Julia Margaret Cameronwww.masters-of-photography.comCcameroncameron.htm

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