JULIA MARGARET CAMERON

[1] [2]

[3] [4]

(1) "The Kiss of Peace", albumen silver print, 1869.
(2) "Detail from Summer Days," albumen silver print, 1865.
(3) O.G. Rejlander, "Lionel, Emily, Alfred & Hallan Tennyson," albumen silver print, c. 1862.
(4) "Julie Jackson,", albument silver print from glass negative, c. 1865-66.
All pictures courtesy the Hochberg-Mattis Collection.

by Jody Zellen

(Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego) For My Best Beloved Sister Mia is an exhibition of photographs from a photo album that the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron began with her sister Mia in 1873. Although Cameron's photographs have been widely seen, this particular album is of great significance in the development of her work. It not only depicts her family and her friends, but also presents images by other photographers working at the time as well as images of paintings and drawings-her artistic influences. The images in this album at one point were disassembled so that the photographs could be sold individually. For this exhibition the images have been reassembled in the sequence of the album so they can been seen as they were originally intended to be viewed.

Cameron was born in Calcutta in 1815. Although educated in France she moved back to India in 1834 when she was nineteen. In 1848 she and her husband moved to England. Cameron was part of a large family, the fourth of ten children, and had a large family of her own. Part of the upper class, Cameron enjoyed a rich life and made the acquaintence of a number of famous people. Her career as a photographer began in 1863 when her husband was away on a trip. To cheer her from her loneliness, her daughter gave her a camera. Cameron began photographing everyone in sight. Because of the newness of photography as a practice, she was free to make her own rules and not be bound to convention. The kinds of images being made at the time did not interest Cameron. She was interested in capturing another kind of photographic truth. Not one dependent on accuracy of sharp detail, but one that depicted the emotional state of her sitter.

Cameron worked with large glass plate negatives. Because she used a negative plate that was large in size, something that was usually used to shoot the landscape, making her images required her sitters to sit still for long periods of time. As this was difficult to do, her images often came out soft and out of focus. Cameron liked the soft focus portraits and the streak marks on her negatives, choosing to work with these irregularites, making them part of her pictures. Although her photographs lacked the sharpness that other photographers at the time aspired towards, they succeeded in conveying the emotional and spiritual aura of the sitter. Cameron's ambition as a photographer was to "secure [for photography] the character and uses of high art by combining real and ideal, and sacrificing nothing of truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty."

In 1873 Cameron sent her sister Maria (Mia) Jackson a partially empty photo album, asking her sister to collaborate with her on the project in the years to come by adding images, as she sent them, in the places and the sequence she described. The front part of the album had photographs and portraits Cameron took of her family and friends, both candidly posed as well as acting out staged tableaux. The back half of the album contained images by Cameron's contemporaries like Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Lewis Caroll, as well as numerous photographs of paintings and drawings.
Although at the time Cameron was seen as an unconventional and experimental photographer, her images have a solid place in the history of photography. Her family albums are noteworthy not only as documents of a family history, but they also provide insights into Victorian society. Most of Cameron's photographs are portraits. She used members of her family as sitters and made photographs than concentrated on their faces. She was interested in conveying their natural beauty, often asking female sitters to let down their hair so as to show them in a way that they were not accustomed to presenting themselves. In addition to making stunning and evocative portraits both of male and female subjects, Cameron also staged tableaux and posed her sitters in situations that simulated allegorical paintings.

The Mia Album contained both kinds of images. Amongst the photographs in the album and in the exhibition are some of Cameron's most famous. Included is The Kiss of Peace, a portrait of a mother and child based on the gospel story of the Visitation. In the photograph the child gazes down, while the mother's lips rest casually on her brow. This is a quiet image, one that projects maternal love. Most of Cameron's photographs have a spiritual sensibility, and are peaceful and romantic. The mood is sombre and contemplative. She did not photograph action or care much about backgrounds. It was the essence of the subject that motivated Cameron's photography.