Featured Photographer – Julia Margaret Cameron

Painting of Julia Margaret Cameron by George Frederic Watts, c. 1850-1852

I have not been able get out to shoot for awhile, so I thought I would do a bit of net surfing. I heard about a woman photographer from the 1800’s; Julia Margaret Cameron, intrigued I decided to do some research and just for something different; a post featuring some of her work.

Julia Margaret Cameron

Born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta, India, June 11th 1815. She was educated in France and then returned to India where she married Charles Hay Cameron, 20 years her senior, in 1838. After visiting her sister and being taken with the Isle of White, the Cameron family purchased and moved to a property on the island, called Dimbola Lodge, after the family’s Ceylon estate.

In 1863, at 48 years old, her daughter gave her a camera as a present, thereby starting her career as a photographer. Within a year, Cameron became a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. She remained a member of the Photographic Society London, until her death 26th January 1869. In her photography, Cameron strove to capture beauty. She wrote, “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.”

“Annie, my first success”, 29 January 1864. Cameron’s first print with which she was satisfied

During her career, Cameron registered each of her photographs with the copyright office and kept detailed records. Her shrewd business sense is one reason that so many of her works survive today. Another reason that many of Cameron’s portraits are significant is because they are often the only existing photograph of historical figures. Many paintings and drawings exist but, at the time, photography was still a new medium.

“The bulk of Cameron’s photographs fit into two categories—close ups (portraits) and illustrative allegories based on religious and literary works. In the allegorical works in particular, her artistic influence was clearly Pre-Raphaelite, with far-away looks, limp poses, and soft lighting.” 1

The Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry photographed by Cameron in 1864 “Sadness”

The basic techniques of soft-focus “fancy portraits”, which she later developed, were taught to her by David Wilkie Wynfield. She later wrote that “to my feeling about his beautiful photography I owed all my attempts and indeed consequently all my success”.

At the time, photography was a labour-intensive art that was dependent upon crucial timing. Cameron was often obsessive about her new occupation, and made her subjects sit for countless exposures in blinding light as she took each plate. The results were, in fact, unconventional for their time, with a soft focus created through blurred long exposures, where the subject moved, and leaving the lens intentionally out of focus. Other photographers worked tirelessly for different applications, which led some of her contemporaries complaining and ridiculing the work. With the support of her friends and family she was one of the most prolific and advanced of amateurs in her time. Her enthusiasm meant that her children and others sometimes tired of her endless photography, but it also left fantastic records of her children and many notable figures of the time who visited her.

Alfred Lord Tennyson. Carbon print by Cameron, 1869
Alfred Lord Tennyson. Carbon print by Cameron, 1869

Cameron’s sister ran the artistic scene at Little Holland House, which gave her access to many famous subjects for her portraits. Some of her subjects include: Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Everett Millais,William Michael Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ellen Terry, and George Frederic Watts. Most of these distinctive portraits are cropped closely around the subject’s face and are in soft focus. Often Cameron was a friend of these Victorian celebrities and, knowing them well, tried to capture their personalities in her photographs.

“Beatrice Cenci” (1866), a study for a photographic series devoted to Cenci by Julia Margaret Cameron

Cameron’s posed photographic illustrations represent the other half of her work. In these illustrations, she frequently photographed historical scenes or characters drawn from literary works, which often took the quality of oil paintings. She made no attempt however, to hide the backgrounds. Cameron’s friendship with Tennyson led to him asking her to photograph illustrations for his Idylls of the King. These photographs are designed to resemble oil paintings from the same time period, including rich details as historical costumes and intricate draperies. Today, these posed works are often dismissed by art critics. Nevertheless, Cameron saw these photographs as art, comparable to the oil paintings they imitated.

In 1875 Cameron moved back to Ceylon, but due to technical difficulties with obtaining willing models, chemicals and clean water, she practised little photography and almost none of it survives today.

Her legacy…

cameron12Cameron was not widely known (outside her immediate circle) until 1948, Helmut Gernsheim wrote a book on her work and in 1977 Gernsheim noted that although a great photographer, Cameron had “left no mark” on the aesthetic history of photography because her work was not appreciated by her contemporaries and thus not imitated.

Alice Liddell as Alethea, Pomona, Ceres, and St. Agnes in 1872

In 2013, Getty Images noted in its caption of a portrait of Alice Liddell (whom Cameron photographed as Alethea, Pomona, Ceres, and St. Agnes in 1872) that “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.

It is amazing with so little equipment available, the skill and sheer determination in achieving such photographs, it is a shame Cameron was not given more reference at the time. I think she truly was a woman that should have left a mark on the history of Photography, especially for Women. More of her work can be seen here;



1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Margaret_Cameron

I will leave you with a gallery of just a few of her photos

Til next time, happy snappin