Various reasons can make a person decide to write about the charming city of Calcutta (or Kolkata in Bengali language), starting from street food, passing through religion and ending with Indian politics that very often makes the international media discuss. It is, however, the past of India’s seventh most populated city that will allow us to have a more complete view of the character discussed in this article.
Indeed, between the first and second half of the 19th century, in a colonial India invaded by the Victorian-era Brits, we are able, by taking our gaze beyond the riots and battles, to notice a woman who in the course of her career managed to revolutionize the world of 19th century photography, bringing a whiff of novelty to the field of pioneering photography.
The 19th century, as most people know, was a time of strong sexism, machismo and injustice in every social class, families were uniquely patriarchal and society followed the law of the strongest (or richest). However, leaving aside the socio-political sphere of the issue and looking at the artistic one, we notice how the figure of the woman undergoes a change, becoming a “generating figure”, “mother nature” and representation of kindness, all characteristics that Cameron’s photography incorporates, enhancing them with a dreamy and fairy-tale style.
After receiving her first view camera from her daughter Julia Hay at the age of 48, Cameron began a vast production of images, which would be the incipit for a new genre that would only be observed more widely through early 20th century cinematography.
Inspired by Pre-Raphaelite painting, at that time in great ferment in the art world, the British photographer recreates and captures many of the scenarios that fuelled the imagination of the Victorian artistic movement, transporting the viewer’s mind beyond the realm of dreams and imagination, close to the surreal. Using the wet collodion technique she adopted, her photographs generated the famous “patina” (still sought after by many) that increased the distance between the tangible world and the reconstructed one, enriched with elements that can be traced back to the world of theatre, such as stage costumes and plastic poses on the part of the subjects, whose vague, lost gazes contributed to the feeling of estrangement from reality.
It is not for nothing that her shots were able to read between the lines of fables and legends, extrapolating their meaning and transposing it onto plates of glass, a delicate material, just like her subjects. The sensitivity of her shots and the way they relate to the world and the human being is a very difficult accomplishment for any photographer today.
Cameron did not act casually in her dealings with her images, she always tried to give them an intention and a message, an aura of kindness, calm and gentleness, most of the time focusing all these characteristics on her female subjects whom she saw both for empathy and cultural reasons as inspirational muses. But this, as I have already had the pleasure of saying, is something that exists and will fortunately remain forever in the history of art.
Her ideas and her art have long been appreciated, reflecting values that still are, and in my opinion should be, unanimously accepted by the intelligentsia and society. On the other hand, it is not surprising that she brought about such a great change, her excellent experimental mind allowed her to achieve several firsts, including admission to the Photographic Society of London, as the first woman in the noble society of photographers, an honour which at the time, in 19th century society, meant equality.
Personally, one of her shots that I have always treasured from The Passing of Arthur collection, which Tennyson requested from Cameron in 1874, is So like a shatter’d Column lay the King, where we see the King of Camelot lying on a boat that seems to be travelling on a sea of clouds. The power of the shot to this day continues to speak to me, immersing me in the legends of the Arthurian cycle, demonstrating once again Julia Margaret Cameron’s ability to tell stories without uttering a single word.