Julia Margaret Cameron – The Directorial Mode of C19th Photography.


Julia Margaret Cameron, Sadness, 1864. Albumen print, 22.1 X 17.5 cm.

I have chosen Sadness over other more obvious directorial examples in Julia Margaret Cameron’s oeuvre because it combines many interesting elements. Cameron was known as a great casting director and sought to reveal the internal qualities of her sitters. In Sadness, the viewer ponders whether Ellen Terry, the great Shakespearean actress was collaborating with or performing for Cameron.

For A. D. Coleman, directorial photography is when, “the photographer consciously and intentionally creates events for the express purpose of making images…” (1)  During the 1850s, the directorial approach was an alternative to realism in photography. Anne Marsh writes of this era as producing, “… photographic works which explore the performative and theatrical aspects of photography. The early photographers… provide the opportunity to look at self-consciously created oeuvres which aspired to the unreal, the made-up and, at times, attempted to represent the unrepresentable.” (2)

The photograph of Terry aged sixteen, was taken at Freshwater Bay (Cameron’s home) while she was on her honeymoon. The portrait reveals Cameron’s ability to draw out Terry’s character. Terry was an actress and a young bride of a mismatched marriage with the painter George Frederick Watts, a man twenty one years her senior. The couple separated less than a year later.

An interesting reading can be made of this work when firstly, Cameron’s personality is taken into account. Secondly, when the questions posed by her technique and directorial style are considered. And thirdly, from a fascinating essay on patriarchal society and sexuality during the Victorian era by Anne Marsh.

In The Magic Image, Cameron is described as “… outspoken, candid… iron-willed… hypnotic [and] determined to express herself…” (3)  When Cameron moved to England from her birthplace of Calcutta after marrying the philosopher Charles Hay Cameron (who was twice her age) she “… did not attempt to hide her contempt for the ways of conventional society.” (4)  It was when they moved to the Isle of Wright that Cameron found the “intellectual stimulus she craved.” (5)  The illustrious crowd that visited her home included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Longfellow and Thomas Carlyle, and many became the subjects of her photographs. Inspired by the allegorical paintings of her friend George Frederic Watts, Cameron began composing her photographs in a similar style.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

George Fredrick Watts, Arion Saved by the Dolphin, 1896. Oil on canvas, 28.5 X 41.5 cm.

There are differing opinions on Cameron’s “sloppy” technique and soft focus. Some historians are of the opinion that it was Cameron’s inexperience and enthusiasm “to show the greatness of the inner and give likeness of the outer man.” (6)  Other’s suspect a “subconscious unwillingness to submit to any technical principle… [an] obscure desire to subvert technique.” (7)  In ‘Annals of my Glass House,’ 1874, Cameron wrote, “… when focusing 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 insist upon.” (8)  Photography and its relationship to reality and truth are at work in Cameron’s image. Coleman writes, “The issue here is not whether the photographer manipulated the print but the subject.” (9)

The collodion tear on the image surface evokes a peeling of layers revealing what is hidden beneath. Anne Marsh refers to Steven Marcus’ book The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, which documents the dualistic interpretation of sexuality. A way of enforcing the construct of women as being controlled within a patriarchal society was achieved by confining women to the home, where women carried out the duties of “chaste mother and caring wife.” (10)  Cameron photographs Terry in her house, leaning into the shadow against regency wallpaper, tugging at her necklace nervously, her wedding ring subdued.

This dualistic quality is further evidenced in the eroticism achieved by photographing Terry in her petticoat. The fabric, with its Pre-Raphaelite folds and lacework falls slightly off her shoulders and highlights a sensual curve to her hair upswept behind her shoulder. Weston Naef remarks, “There is a very skilful use of light that reinforces the sensual element of the content. The light comes off of her cheek and models the lower part of her jaw…” (11)  Her long neck exposed is quite provocative. Marcus’ double coding of women and sexuality brings into question the nature of Cameron’s directorial gaze. The devout Anglican, mother and wife, and the sexualised image she created subvert Nineteenth century conventions.


1. A D Coleman, ‘The Directorial Mode: Notes toward a definition,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the present, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 484.

2. A Marsh, ‘Ghostly Performances: The Aura of Early Art Photography,’ in The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Melbourne: Macmillan, 2003, p. 116.

3. C Beaton, G Buckland, The Magic Image, Little, Brown & Company, 1975, p. 62.

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. ibid., p. 65.

7. A Scharf, Pioneers of Photography, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1975, p. 78.

8. ibid., p. 76.

9. Coleman, op. cit., p. 480.

10. Marsh, op. cit., p. 122.

11. N Weston, (ed.) In Focus Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Christopher Hudson, 1996, p. 108.


Julia Margaret Cameron http://www.masters-of-photography.com/C/cameron/cameron_sadness_full.html

George Fredrick Watts http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/arion-saved-by-the-dolphin-97313

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s