Know any budding young photographers? There are two new children’s books on shelves, both which happen to be from Candlewick Press (which means they’re well-designed), aimed at young readers interested in learning more about photography and its history.
Susan Goldman Rubin brings readers a biography of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron in a book titled Stand There! She Shouted. (“Stand there!” was a demand Cameron often placed on her subjects.) Sumptuously illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline and meticulously researched, it’s a detailed, 74-page account of Cameron and her life. And Rubin knows how to grab readers’ attention: On the first page, she notes how a woman who once met the child Julia remarked that she was “a little, ugly, underbred-looking thing; but she has the reputation of being very clever, which is better than beauty.” Indeed.
Cameron was born in India at the turn of the 19th century but later lived most of her life in France and England. Her life changed forever when as a young woman she befriended Sir John Herschel, a well-known astronomer who showed her his camera lucida and then hypo, a chemical solution that fixed images on paper. Herschel and Cameron would remain lifelong friends.
After Cameron married and bore many children, she made her first visit to a photography studio. It was then that she fell in love with photography after her daughter and son-in-law gifted her with a camera and a darkroom kit. Cameron dove right in with “no knowledge of the art…I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter.”
But, as it turns out, focus—or a lack thereof—became her trademark. Some of her beginning photos included streaks, scratches, stains and blurs, yet these “flukes,” Rubin writes, “pleased her artist’s eye.” She then began to intentionally take out-of-focus portraits, many included in this book. This soft, velvety effect in her work became her signature look, which critics first greeted with derision and scorn but, years later, appreciated.
Rubin does an excellent job of revealing the stubborn personality behind the talent. Cameron lived in a time of patriarchy with, as the author notes, limited career choices for women. Yet she bucked such well-established beliefs with her photography work, often doggedly pursuing subjects and costuming them, staging elaborate scenes for their photos. And Cameron “didn’t stop until she had what she wanted.” Rubin also effectively conveys Cameron’s relatively free spirit; in one instance, she shares a brief letter excerpt from the daughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, who had visited Cameron in England. Annie, his daughter, recalls the first time she met Cameron, remembering her as a “strange apparition in a flowing red velvet dress,” carrying a cup of tea as she walked along. Cameron and her sisters were considered “bohemians” due to their refusal to wear the tight corsets popular during that time period.
Cameron created more than 3,000 photographs during her career in England, the author notes, eventually writing Annals of My Glass House, a memoir. It is in this memoir that she wrote of her longing to “arrest all beauty” in photography. Rubin, with affection and reverence for the subject matter, expertly documents Cameron’s desire to capture beauty throughout her career, and photography lovers will appreciate learning about the development of the camera in this well-crafted biography.
Those who enjoy Rubin’s work can follow it up with Ruth Thomson’s Photos Framed: A Fresh Look at the World’s Most Memorable Photographs. This one would make an excellent addition to middle and high school libraries and classrooms, but it’s a browse-able, entertaining and informative read for just about anyone.
In Photos Framed, Thomson explores well-known photographs taken from 1844 to 2011—Elsie Wright’s Cottingley Fairies from 1917, which duped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Hugo Burnand’s 2011 family portrait from Prince William and Kate’s royal wedding; Gjon Mili’s famous portrait of Pablo Picasso (1949), swirling the outline of a Minotaur with an electric light in a dark room; Steve McCurry’s 1985 portrait of an Afghan girl; Edward Muybridge’s “Horse in Motion” (1878); Jeff Widener’s photo of the young man standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square (1989); and many more.
After briefly introducing the types of photos seen in the book (portraits, nature shots, documentary photos, etc.), she asks the million-dollar question: Does photography portray the truth? Not always, she notes. (See the Cottingley Fairies!) And she notes how easy it is today to manipulate photos, bending them to be what we want people to see. For each famous photograph featured, she discusses the photo itself, as well as the photographer, and she raises issues, asks questions, invites readers to zoom in and ponder what they see, and much more. It’s fascinating, each page a conversation-starter, ready-made for classroom and group discussions.
Picture perfect, both books.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.