Julia Margaret Cameron
Biography | Bibliography
Julia Margaret Cameron was a British photographer. She became known for her portraits of celebrities of the time, and for Arthurian and similar legendary themed pictures.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic career was short, spanning the last eleven years of her life. She did not take up photography until the age of 48, when she was given a camera as a present. Her work had a huge impact on the development of modern photography, especially her closely cropped portraits which are still mimicked today. Her house, Dimbola Lodge, on the Isle of Wight can still be visited.
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. She remained a member of the Photographic Society, London, until her death. 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
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”.
Lord Tennyson, her neighbour on the Isle of Wight, often brought friends to see the photographer and her works.
At the time, photography was a labour-intensive art that also was highly dependent upon crucial timing. Sometimes Cameron was 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 leaving the lens intentionally out of focus.
Other photographers strove for vastly different applications. 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 left us 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, becoming an invaluable resource. Many paintings and drawings exist, but, at the time, photography was still a new and challenging medium for someone outside a typical portrait studio.
The bulk of Cameron’s photographs fit into two categories—closely framed 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.
Helmut Gernsheim, Julia Margaret Cameron : her life and photographic work, London : Gordon Fraser, 1975.
Van Deren Coke, One hundred years of photographic history : essays in honor of Beaumont Newhall, Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, ca. 1975.
Brian Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron: a Victorian family portrait, London, Owen, 1973.