MediaSpace at the Science Museum (Exhibition Road, London SW7) is currently showing an exhibition of the work of Victorian portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron. The majority of the exhibits are original albumen prints from wet-collodion plates, although there a few modern prints.
Apart from a few images from her final years at the family coffee plantations in Ceylon, the images fall into two main categories: head-shot portraits and tableaux of religious or poetic scenes. The head-shots, in particular, were unusual at a time when portraits were typically full-body. Portrait subjects included Thomas Carlyle, William Herschel and Alfred Tennyson (Tennyson described his favourite portrait as “the dirty monk).
It has to be said that Cameron’s technique was not perfect; all but one or two of the photographs are unsharp and many exhibit motion blur. The introductory text acknowledges and excuses this thus, “Her photographs combined an unorthodox technique with a deeply personal vision. Using a lack of sharp focus, they often included scratches and other technical ‘faults’ to harness photography’s expressive power, which became the hallmark of her style despite criticism at the time”. The label next to her first lens (a 12-inch f/6 Petzval without aperture stops – therefore impossible to get the whole of an 11×9″ plate in focus) quotes Cameron herself thus, “… when focussing and coming to something which to my eye was very beautiful I stopped there, instead of screwing on the Lens to the more definite focus which all other Photographers prefer”
Cameron also had an interest in amateur theatre, which shows in the arrangement of the group tableaux and in her use of lighting. The intensity of the images outweighs their technical flaws and she is now regarded as one of the greats of Victorian photography, and highly influential in portraiture.