Was one of the most significant photographers of the 19th century born in Calcutta with Bengali connection? : Jane Richter

By Indranil Halder

I did attend the 2022 Kolkata Literature Festival in Park Mansion, Calcutta, India. At the event, a discussion between author Shrabani Basu (author of Victoria and Abdul and now her new book The Parsee Lawyer has the story of Arthur Conan Doyle) and John Zubrzycki ( author of The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy ) that took my breath away. They focused on how writers do their research to find facts, hidden under layers of history. Certainly what Jane Richter has done to highlight Julia Margaret Cameron’s Connection to Calcutta.

The City of Calcutta:
Calcutta or ( now Kolkata) is in northeastern India. A former British capital in the Indian subcontinent which is today inhabited by nearly 20 million people and where many globally recognised Britishers had their part Bengali heritage connection from few generations back such as Virginia Woolf(writer), William Dalrymple (art historian and founder of world’s largest writers festival- Jaipur Literature Festival) and Julia Margaret Cameron(photographer).

Who is Julia Margaret Cameron ?
In 1815, Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta where she spent a significant part of her life in Garden Reach and Chowringhee. She was a ground-breaking, Victorian portrait photographer. Today, considered to be one of the most influential portrait photographers of all time. Julia practically invented the ‘close up’ as well as her trademark soft focus style. The latter wasn’t appreciated back in the day, but she it is whom we can credit with elevating the status of photography to that of ‘high art’. Her portrait photos can be viewed across prestigious galleries such as The Metropolitan Museum of Arts in United States or Victoria and Albert Museum in United Kingdom.

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And yet, she is still relatively unknown in India, the country of her birth! Her birth-city of Calcutta, is also unaware of her global fame.

Julia was the daughter of a French aristocratic mother and an English East India Company official who were living in India. Some of her photographic subjects were Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (1846-1895), Sir John Herschel (1792–1871) and Mary Ann Hillier(1796-1847). In 1864, she first displayed her work at the 10th Exhibition of the Photographic Society in London. Followed by Berlin, Paris, and Vienna before she died in Sri Lanka. In 1886, Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson; 1846–1895) biography of Cameron was published , few years later George Bernard Shaw reviewed a posthumous exhibition of her and in 2019 Cameron was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. To reflect on Julia’s life, Jane began experiencing some amazing overlaps between her own path and that of Julia, as her project unfolded through several investigative research.

Who is Jane Richter ?
Jane Richter is a regular traveller to Calcutta. She is also an expert on the Victorian pioneer portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Jane lives on the Isle of Wight (off the south coast of England) where she runs her own tour guiding company, Isle of Wight Guided Tours. She recently made a documentary-style film based on a research project she carried out during Covid-19 lockdown. With her many visits to Calcutta – but most specifically in February/March 2020, Jane’s starting point was ‘looking for signs of Julia Margaret Cameron in Calcutta to inspire photographers and Calcutta residents.

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Jane Richter’s Research :

Jane’s passion for India started on account of her aunt having worked at London’s India House back in 1947. This passion intensified after she moved to the Isle of Wight, just a few streets away from Dimbola Museum & Galleries. It was Julia Margaret Cameron’s former home and workplace. Jane documented her work in film entitled ‘Cameron, Coffee & Calcutta: A Traveller’s Tales’ which interweaves the story of her own travels and findings with the biographical details of the photographer and her family – starting in India. The film travelled with her to France, the United Kingdom and eventually to Julia’s final resting place in Sri Lanka. With her, we criss-cross both continents and centuries, whilst pursuing several recurring themes. By including some classical literary examples (Tagore from India and Tennyson from United Kingdom) as well as two modern-day Kolkata resident writers (Shuvashree Chowdhury and Bishwanath Ghosh), Jane emphasises the eternal cultural links and exchanges between East and West.

For Jane, the film itself took 2 years to make with film-maker, Lutz Wolters of BMTV Regionalfernsehen (most of the filming was done in his studio in Bergheim, near Cologne, Germany). Jane’s aim is to show the film to as many interested groups as possible who would like a private screening with a continuous narrative to increase much needed awareness about one of the most important 19th century portrait photographers. The full-length version has a running time of 85 minutes. Jane used her film screenings as a way of fundraising for Calcutta based Hope Foundation charity. She also wants to show her film at the Kolkata Literary Festival 2024 and even be a part of My Kolkata in Kolkata 2.0’, an annual exhibition curated by Reena Dewan, Director of Kolkata Centre for Creativity. Her film has the potential to inspire many in Calcutta. Few years back, local Calcuttan Pubarun Basu became the first Indian to win the Youth Competition of Sony World Photography Awards 2021. He also bagged the title of the ‘Youth Photographer of the Year 2021’. I have been lucky to work with several Kolkata based photographers such as Archan Mukerjee, Hillol Dey or Jitaditya Sengupta. Today, Bengalis as well as Indians are participating in numerous local, national and international photography events and awards like Oindrila Mitra and Pranay Lodhia in Australia.

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It is truely remarkable to learn about Jane’s research to celebrate Julia Margaret Cameron connection to Calcutta, where native Bengalis love their photography. In line with the photographic interest in Calcutta, Jane’s research poses a significant question – why Calcutta must celebrate its own Julia Margaret Cameron?

Experience the on-going story of the film by following Jane’s facebook page ‘Cameron, Coffee & Calcutta: A Traveller’s Tales’. Feel free to contact Jane on jane.richter@outlook.com if you are interested in arranging a screening with her or require any more information on this very original piece of work.