Known for her dreamy, soft focused images, which embody the Victorian Era, Julia Margaret Cameron became a photographer later on in her life. She started photographing when she was 48 years old when she was gifted her first camera from her daughter and son-in-law who wrote to her, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.” Her passion for mastering the art of photography led her to create extraordinary ethereal quality images that were inspired by theatrical characters. Her photographs embodied the fine art photograph at a time when the commercial industry was dominating. Even though many critics did not admire her photographs during her lifetime, she continued to push forward, mastering her craft as well as creating work while enjoying the photographic process. Her hard work and perseverance paid off because she has becoming one of the most admired photographers of her time.
Cameron was born in Calcutta, India where her father was a British official of the East India Company. She was born into a family of notably beautiful sisters, who were known in society for their beauty, but Cameron was considered the ugly duckling in her family in comparison to her sisters. Cameron lived in France while she attended school but moved back to India after her studies. Around 1836, Julia Margaret Cameron traveled to South Africa where she contracted and illness and while in recovery she met Sir John Herschel, a British astronomer who introduced Cameron to photography. Herschel is well known for his contributions to the invention of the cyanotype. Cameron and Herschel became lifelong friends, Herschel would frequently write to Cameron updating her on new photographic inventions. He also would later help Cameron with her photographic technical difficulties.
As well as meeting and befriending Sir John Herschel in South Africa, Julia Margaret Cameron also met Charles Hay Cameron who she would later move back to Calcutta India and marry. Together, they had a full house, entertaining notable guests as well as raising four children and two more when they moved to England a decade later. While in England, Cameron was able to reconnect with her sisters who had notable connections in the artistic community and in society. Julia and Charles Cameron moved around from Tunbridge Wells to Putney to eventually settling in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. By this time Julia Margaret was already 48 when her daughter gifted her with her first camera and her creative vision for photography ignited.
When beginning her photographic journey she wrote, “I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass.” Cameron however was determined to master the art especially that of creating wet collodion glass plate negatives. She had a great deal of time on her hands because her children were out of the house and her husband was frequently in Ceylon visiting one of the family’s coffee plantations.
Through her journey of learning photography, she had many mentors like Sir John Herschel. Another was David Wilkie Wynfield who was a British painter and photographer who Cameron once wrote, “to my feeling about his beautiful photography I owed all my attempts and indeed consequently all my success.” Through the help of her mentors’ guidance she refined her craft as well as her photographic composition.
Cameron was strictly interested in photography as a fine art medium and had no interest in the commercial side of the industry. She became well known for her two photographic styles, her portraits and her theatrical allegories. Many of her Photographic illustrations look similar to an oil painting and were thoughtfully and precariously arranged. She created closely framed portraits of renowned societal figures and friends. She would also gather her friends and family to help create her own fictional scenes in her home studio. She was greatly inspired by theater, (specifically Shakespeare), religion, and literature. Charlotte Higgins explains in an article in The Guardian, Julia Margaret Cameron: soft-focus photographer with an iron will, “The photographs she made—working at first by trial, error and bossiness—were, she absolutely insisted, Art with a capital A. She ignored the carping of critics who put down her dreamy focus to technical incompetence . . .”
Though gorgeous in composition and execution, Cameron was known for making her models sit for long periods of time while she found the perfect way to photograph them. Many who had the opportunity to model for Julia Cameron in her home studio accounted their unforgettable and sometimes uncomfortable experience. One of her studio guests explained, “The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen . . .. The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth—but here I utterly broke down, for Mr. Cameron, who was very aged, and had unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.”
Her persistence in learning the medium, creative ambition, and bossiness paid off. A year after receiving her first camera, Julia Cameron became a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. Around 1875, The Cameron’s moved to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where Julia Margaret kept photographing. She frequently complained in letters sent to her friends that she had a hard time finding the right chemicals and clean water to create and print her photographs. There was also a limited market for her photographs in Ceylon. This environment led her to create fewer images than she did while in England and most of her work during this time did not survive. A couple of years after moving to Ceylon, Julia Margaret Cameron unfortunately died to a bad chill she developed.
It was not until 1948 that Cameron’s work became well known to the world. Since then her work has been exhibited by many museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, Getty Center, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and many exhibition from the collections of the Victoria Albert Museum. Many artists and photographers deeply admire her work. Photographer Imogen Cunningham once stated, “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better.”
Through her passion and dedication to learning the medium, Julia Margaret Cameron was truly gifted with the talent of the photographic process. She picked up photography later on in life, created some of the most compelling images of her time, even if she was not well known until many years after her death. Her photographs are an embodiment of what the fine art photograph can achieve: she once wrote “My aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal and sacrificing nothing of truth by all possible devotion of poetry and beauty.”
Written by Alexis Hagestad