Portrait: Julia Margaret Cameron
b. 1815 Calcutta, India, d. 1879 Sri Lanka
Julia Margaret Cameron was born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta, India, to James Pattle, a British official of the East India Company, and Adeline de l’Etang, a daughter of French aristocrats. Julia was from a family of celebrated beauties, and was considered an ugly duckling among her sisters. As her great-niece Virginia Woolf wrote in the 1926 introduction to the Hogarth Press collection of Cameron’s photographs, “In the trio [of sisters] where…[one] was Beauty; and [one] Dash; Mrs. Cameron was undoubtedly Talent”.
In 1863, when Cameron was 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. 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.”
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”.
Cameron was sometimes obsessive about her new occupation, with subjects sitting 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 we are left with some of the best of records of her children and of the many notable figures of the time who visited her.
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 and challenging medium for someone outside a typical portrait studio.
Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the most impressive photographers of the nineteenth century. Her photographs taken mainly in the 1860s consisted of religious, literary and allegorical tableaux and portraiture. She can be credited with the introduction of intense spiritual and moral concerns to photography. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was one of her famous sitters. He commissioned a series of photographs to illustrate his ‘Idylls of the King’. After Cameron’s death, her pictures were published in the photographic journal ‘Camera Work’ and influenced and inspired the Pictorialists.
What I appreciate most about her photography is that her portraits are so intimate. When I look at them I almost feel like these people are still living and breathing.