Focus on the Collection: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879)

Julia Margaret Cameron embraced photography at the age of 48, and was one of the earliest champions of the medium as an art form. Born in 1815 into a large aristocratic family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, Cameron settled in England in the late 1840s.

In England, she frequented intellectual salons, including the Little Holland House salon hosted by her sister, Sara Prinsep. Within these circles, Cameron befriended many of Victorian England’s most influential figures, including Charles Dickens, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, and George Frederic Watts.1

In 1842, Cameron was introduced to photography by astronomer Sir John Herschel, who had invented the cyanotype process. However, she did not begin experimenting with the medium until her children gave her a camera in 1863. In later years, Herschel sat for Cameron, and is depicted in the 1867 portrait, Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792–1871).

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792–1871), April 1867, printed c. 1875. Carbon print.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792–1871), April 1867, printed c. 1875. Carbon print, 30 x 23.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.  Photo: NGC

 

Cameron was more interested in the emotive possibilities of photography than in technical mastery of the medium. The early days of photography had been somewhat free and experimental. However, by the 1860s, Western amateur photographic societies had developed rigid ideas on what constituted a photographic print suitable for exhibition and publication, and commercial photographers had imposed posing and lighting conventions. As a result, Cameron’s work was not admired by all, and a number of photographers criticized her close-up portraits and use of soft focus.2

Even so, Cameron’s photographs received more praise than criticism. She approached her work as a professional — marketing, publishing, and exhibiting her photographs — although she was not interested in becoming a commercial portrait photographer.3 Cameron considered herself an artist, and sought to capture a combination of fantasy and reality through tableaux and expressive headshots.

Influenced by the allegorical works of the Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites, Cameron used family, servants and friends as models to create tableaux inspired by literature, philosophy and theology. Cameron directed many of her tableau models to avert their eyes in order to blend into their roles as fictional characters, rather than reveal their true identities — as seen in Acting the Lily Maid of Astolat and Alethia (Alice Liddell).

Julia Margaret Cameron, Acting the Lily Maid of Astolat, October 1874. Albumen silver print.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Acting the Lily Maid of Astolat, October 1874. Albumen silver print, 32.9 x 25.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alethia (Alice Liddell), October 1872. Albumen silver print.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alethia (Alice Liddell), October 1872. Albumen silver print, 32.4 x 23.7 cm oval. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Cameron’s headshots focused on the face of the sitter, rather than the full-length portraits typical in commercial photography. She sought to capture the internal emotions of her subject — “recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man”4 — as she stated in 1867, after photographing historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle.

Many of these headshots depict Cameron’s salon friends, as well as her niece Julia Stephen, mother of author Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell. Cameron took many photographs of Julia throughout the years, including Mrs. Duckworth (Mrs. Leslie Stephen). Taken shortly before Julia’s marriage to her first husband Herbert Duckworth, the portrait captures Julia on the brink of transition, exemplifying Cameron’s desire to capture her subject’s inner and outer life.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Duckworth (Mrs. Leslie Stephen), April 1867. Albumen silver print.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Duckworth (Mrs. Leslie Stephen), April 1867. Albumen silver print, 27.4 x 21.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Following her death in 1879, Cameron’s influence on early art photography persisted. Pivotal 20th-century art photographers, such as A.L. Coburn and Alfred Stieglitz, were impressed by Cameron’s work. Stieglitz reproduced five of her photographs as photogravures in Camera Work, and Coburn featured Cameron in his 1915 Exhibition of the Old Masters of Photography.5 Cameron is one of the few 19th-century women photographers consistently recognized for her contributions to the photo-historical canon.

Learn more…

In the words of the artist:

Cameron’s memoir, Annals of My Glass House, although unfinished at the time of her death, provides valuable insight into her artistic desires and experimentations with photography. Cameron described her early experiences with making photographs, stating honestly, “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.”

On her passion for the medium, Cameron wrote, “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.” She further maintained, “The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply seated love of the beautiful, and from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”6

About the Author:

Mina Markovic is pursuing a Master’s degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management (F+PPCM) at Ryerson University in Toronto.

 


1 Joichiro Kawamura, “Cameron and the Holland Park Salon,” in Julia Margaret Cameron: A Woman Who Breathed Life into Photographs, supervisor Joichiro Kawamura (Tokyo: Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, 2016), pp. 205–206.

2 Larry J. Schaaf, Julia Margaret Cameron (New York: Hans P. Kraus Jr. Inc., 2011), pp. 7–9.

3 Malcolm Daniel, “Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, accessed November 3, 2021, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/camr/hd_camr.htm.

4 Akiko Kato, “Her Anonymous Niece: The Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron,” in Julia Margaret Cameron: A Woman Who Breathed Life into Photographs, supervisor Joichiro Kawamura (Tokyo: Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, 2016), p. 207.

5 Schaaf, p. 10.

6 Julia Margaret Cameron, “Annals of My Glass House,” first published in Photo Beacon (Chicago) 2 (1890), pp. 157–160. Reprinted in Beaumont Newhall, ed., Photography, Essays and Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography (New York: Museum of Modern Art; Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1980), pp. 135–139.

Share this article: