Today, 11 June, is quite a big day in photographic history – it is on this day that we celebrate the births of two great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 to 26 January 1879) from Great Britain, and the American Jerry Uelsmann (born 11 June 1934).
Cameron and Uelsmann operate in very different photographic domains – while Julia Cameron was a groundbreaking portrait photographer, Uelsmann is known for his fantastical darkroom creations, and is considered the forerunner of the photomontage technique.
Julia Margaret Cameron was a key figure in the development of the modern portrait style. Her influence in this field is particularly significant if one takes into account that her photographic career only spanned eleven years – she only took up photography at the late age of 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter. She took to the discipline with great vigour and had an obvious knack for photography, quickly becoming a prominent member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her short career she photographed many famous celebrities and historical figures, and she is also known for allegorical works featuring religious and literary themes.
One of the innovations Cameron brought to portrait photography was cropping her portraits much more tightly than was the norm at the time. Another interesting technique she used, was to photograph her subjects intentionally slightly out of focus, and using long exposures, thus creating images that also contained motion blur. While this led some of her contemporaries to ridicule her work, she remained extremely prolific, leaving behind a very comprehensive portrait library for her time.
Besides her technical and artistic innovations, Cameron also brought her innovative nature to bear on the business side of photography – she registered each of her photos with the copyright office, and kept detailed records of all her work. This careful bookkeeping has resulted in a large number of her works surviving today.
While Cameron is an influential figure in portrait photography, her influence only came to bear long after her death – as mentioned before, many of her contemporaries found her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits ridiculous and unacceptable. Things have changed, though, with many claiming her to be one of the portraiture greats – Imogen Cunningham said “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better”, while Getty Images have stated “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.
Unlike Julia Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann’s interest in photography started at the much younger age of 14. While still at school he started landing a few minor photography jobs, and after completing his tertiary studies in photography, he took up a job teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960.
From early in his career Uelsmann developed an interest in darkroom image manipulation, creating composite images from multiple negatives. Some of his creations, done using his large archive of negatives, were amazingly intricate, often requiring him to work with multiple enlargers during the same session. Referring to his works as “allegorical surrealist imagery of the unfathomable”, he never cared about the boundaries suggested by the photographic realists of hie time. Instead, he opted to use components of a number of different photographs to create and share the images he saw in his mind, thus developing the photo montage technique to an amazingly advanced technical level.
What made the impact of his work even greater was that he created his photo-fantasies at a time when such montages weren’t at all a common concept – photos were essentially considered realistic documentary interpretations of scenes and events. As such, Uelsmann’s avant grade photographic visuals helped to greatly expand the boundaries of photography as an art form.
To this day, despite the proliferation of digital processing tools and techniques, Uelsmann continues to use traditional equipment and his almost magical darkroom skills have resulted in works of breathtaking intricacy – a visit to his website to look through some of his works from the past decade (and earlier) is well worth your time.
Like Cameron, Uelsmann’s work was initially not looked upon kindly by his contemporaries. Like Cameron, however, Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time and is now being acknowledged for their groundbreaking disregard for the styles, norms and trends of the time – as such playing an important role in advancing the art of photographic.
Both Julia Margaret Cameron and Jerry Uelsmann have succeeded, in very different ways, to move beyond mere photography to create original works of art – in Cameron’s case, vividly personal, yet almost impressionistic portraits, and in Uelsmann’s case, surrealistic visions from the mind of their creator.