Julia Margaret Cameron (June 11, 1815 – January 26, 1879) was a British photographer. She became known for her portraits of celebrities of her day, and for Arthurian and similar legendary themed pictures and tableaux.
Cameron's photographic career was short (about 12 years) and came relatively late in her life. Her work had a major impact on the development of modern photography, especially her closely cropped portraits, a photographic convention that remains very popular today. She was not interested in photographic sharpness or realism, but instead tried to capture or depict the "inner" or "spiritual" aspect of her subjects.
Her house, Dimbola Lodge, on the Isle of Wight, can still be visited.
Julia Margaret Cameron was born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta, India. Her father was James Pattle, a British official of the East India Company, and her mother was Adeline de l'Etang, a daughter of French aristocrats. Julia Margaret was part of a large family, the fourth of ten children. In turn, after her marriage, she had a large family of her own. She was part of the upper class, and enjoyed a rich life. Because of her social status and prominence she was able to make the acquaintance of a significant number of famous people. She came from a family of celebrated beauties, and was considered an ugly duckling among her sisters. For example, each sister had an attribute which she used as a nickname. Her sisters had nicknames such as "Beauty." Julia's nickname was "Talent." This instilled in Julia an obsession with idealized beauty.
Julia was educated in France, but returned to India in 1834 when she was nineteen. In 1838, she married Charles Hay Cameron, a jurist and member of the Law Commission stationed in Calcutta; he was twenty years her senior. In 1848, Charles Hay Cameron retired and he and Julia and their family moved to London. Cameron's sister, Sarah Prinsep, had been living in London and hosted a salon at Little Holland House, the dower house of Holland House in Kensington, where famous artists and writers regularly visited. In 1860, Julia visited the estate of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight. She was taken with the location, and the Cameron family purchased a property on the island soon after. They called it Dimbola Lodge after the family's Ceylon estate.
Cameron's career as a photographer began in 1863, when she was 48 years old, while her husband was away on a trip. To cheer her from her loneliness, her daughter gave her a camera. Cameron began photographing everyone in sight. Within a year, she became a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her photography, Cameron strove to capture what she regarded as beauty. She wrote, "I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied."
Photography as a practice was then new. Cameron was able to make her own rules and not be bound to convention. She was not interested in the kind of images being made by other photographers at the time, most of whom were concerned with capturing sharp and detailed images. Instead, she was bent on capturing another kind of photographic truth. Instead of being concerned with capturing the accuracy of sharp detail, she wanted to depict the emotional state of her sitter.
Her neighbor on the Isle of Wight, Alfred Lord Tennyson often brought friends to see the photographer.
Cameron used large wet glass plate negatives, a technique that was usually used to shoot landscapes. Using this technique for making her images required long exposure times because of the low sensitivity of the plates, which meant that her sitters to sit still for long periods of time during the exposures. Since sitting still for such long periods was difficult for the sitters they often moved during the exposures, and thus Cameron's images often came out soft and out of focus. But she liked these soft focus portraits and the streak marks on her negatives and chose to make these irregularities part of her pictures. Although her photographs lacked the detailed sharpness that other photographers at the time aspired towards, they did succeed in conveying the emotional and spiritual aura of the sitter. Cameron's ambition as a photographer, as she put it, was to "secure [for photography] the character and uses of high art by combining real and ideal, and sacrificing nothing of truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty."
Cameron was noted for great enthusiasm, passion, and even obsessiveness for her photographic work. At her Dimbola house, she converted an old coalhouse into a darkroom, and made a glass chicken house into a studio with windows that allowed her to regulate the light. Her subjects often had to sit for countless exposures in the blinding light as she laboriously coated, exposed, and processed each wet plate. The results were, in fact, unconventional in their intimacy and their particular visual habit of created blur through both long exposures where the subject moved and by leaving the lens intentionally out of focus. This led some of her contemporaries to complain and even ridicule the work, but her friends and family were supportive and she was one of the most prolific and advanced of amateurs in her time. Her enthusiasm for her craft meant that her children and others sometimes tired of her endless photographing, but it also means that the modern world is left with some of the best of records of her children and of the many notable figures of the time who visited her. Her pictures give one of the best windows, today, into what the people of the Victorian Era looked like, especially its prominent ones.
During her career, Cameron registered each of her photographs with the copyright office and kept detailed records. She was also a determined promoter of her own work. In 1865, she had the first one person exhibition of her photographs at Colnaghis in London, and also presented a folio of her work to the British Museum. Her shrewd business sense is one reason that so many of her works survive today. Many of Cameron's portraits are also especially significant because they are the only existing photograph of that historical figure. Many paintings and drawings of those figures exist, but, at the time, photography was still a new, challenging medium for someone outside a typical portrait studio.
In 1873, Cameron sent her sister Maria (Mia) Jackson a photo album that was partly empty. She asked her sister to collaborate with her on the proposed project in the years to come by adding images to the album, as she sent them, in the places and the sequence she described. The album had two parts. The front part had photographs and portraits Cameron took of her family and friends, both candidly posed ones and others that acted out staged tableaux. The second half of the album contained pictures by some of Cameron's contemporaries such as Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Lewis Caroll, plus numerous photographs of paintings and drawings.
Most of Cameron's photographs are portraits of members of her family, concentrating on their faces. She wanted to show their natural beauty, and she often asked female sitters to let down their hair so she could show them in a way that they were not accustomed to presenting themselves. Judging by the number and quality of photographs she made of girls and women, she shows evidence of being especially attuned to photographing them and showing their inner qualities.
The bulk of Cameron's photographs fit into two categories: Closely framed and evocative portraits of both male and female subjects, and illustrative allegories and tableaux 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.
In Cameron's posed photographic illustrations she frequently photographed historical scenes or literary works, often using forms of staging and imaginative posing that had become conventions in oil paintings. However, she made no attempt at hiding the backgrounds in her pictures. Cameron's friendship with Tennyson led him to ask her to photograph illustrations for his Idylls of the King. These photographs are designed to look like oil paintings from the same time period, including rich details such as historical costumes and intricate draperies. Today, these posed works are sometimes dismissed by art critics. Nevertheless, Cameron saw these photographs as art, just like the oil paintings they imitated.
Both kinds of pictures are contained in the Mia Album, and it contains some of her most famous pictures. One is The Kiss of Peace, a portrait of a mother and child based on the gospel story of the Visitation. The child gazes down and the mother's lips rest casually on her brow. This can be seen as a quiet image depicting maternal love. Most of Cameron's photographs are peaceful and romantic and have have a spiritual sensibility, with a sombre and contemplative mood. Cameron tried to capture what she saw as the essence of the subject, and she did not photograph action or take much care with backgrounds.
Cameron's sister ran the artistic scene at Little Holland House, which gave her many famous subjects for her portraits. Some of her famous 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. Cameron was often friends with these Victorian celebrities, and tried to capture their personalities in her photos. The pictures give evidence that she usually succeeded in doing so, as much as could be done in photography by using the techniques and materials she had available in her time.
In 1875, the Camerons moved back to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Julia continued to practice photography but complained in letters about the difficulties of getting chemicals and pure water to develop and print photographs. Also, in India, she did not have access to Little Holland House's artistic community. She also did not have a market to distribute her photographs as she had in England. Because of this, Cameron took fewer pictures in India. These pictures were of posed Indian natives, paralleling the posed pictures that Cameron had taken of neighbors in England. Almost none of Cameron's work from India survives. Cameron died in Ceylon in 1879.
Cameron was seen as an unconventional and experimental photographer during her time. Now her images are understood as having an important place in the history of photography. Her family albums are both documents of a family's history and a source of insights into Victorian society, manners, ways of dress, and methods of presentation of the human self to the world. Some of her pictures of famous or important Victorians are the only existing photographs of them.
George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, holds some 163 of Cameron's pictures, some of them printed by photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn around the year 1915, from copy negatives of Cameron's work. Coburn's work is in numerous other museums, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, the National Portrait Museum in London, the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque, and others. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with some 250 of her pictures, contains what may be the world's largest collection of Coburn photographs.
Cameron's niece, Julia Prinsep Stephen née Jackson (1846–1895), wrote the biography of Cameron which appeared in the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, 1886.
Julia Stephen was the mother of Virginia Woolf, who wrote a comic portrayal of the "Freshwater circle" in her only play Freshwater. Woolf edited, with Roger Fry, a collection of Cameron's photographs.
However, it was not until 1948 that her photography became more widely known when Helmut Gernsheim wrote a book on her work.
Today Julia Margaret Cameron is usually considered by historians, connoisseurs, and critics of photography to be one of the world's most important past masters and users of the photographic medium.
All links retrieved June 13, 2018.
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