In December 1863, little more than a year after Roger Fenton retired from photography and sold his equipment, Julia Margaret Cameron received her first camera. It was a gift from her daughter and son-in-law, given with the words “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.” Cameron was forty-eight, a mother of six, and a deeply religious, well read, somewhat eccentric friend of many of Victorian England’s greatest minds: the painter G. F. Watts; the poets Robert Browning, Henry Taylor, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, her neighbor at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight; the scientists Charles Darwin and Sir John Herschel; and the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle. In the decade that followed the gift, the camera became far more than an amusement to her: “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.” Her mesmerizing portraits and figure studies on literary and biblical themes were unprecedented in her time and remain among the most highly admired of Victorian photographs.
The gift of the camera in December 1863 came at a moment when her husband Charles was in Ceylon attending to the family’s coffee plantations, when their sons were grown or away at boarding school, and when their only daughter, Julia, had married and moved away. Photography became Cameron’s link to the writers, artists, and scientists who were her spiritual and artistic advisors, friends, neighbors, and intellectual correspondents. “I began with no knowledge of the art,” she wrote. “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.” No matter. She was indefatigable in her efforts to master the difficult steps in producing negatives with wet collodion on glass plates. Although she may have taken up photography as an amateur and sought to apply it to the noble noncommercial aims of art, she immediately viewed her activity as a professional one, vigorously copyrighting, exhibiting, publishing, and marketing her photographs. Within eighteen months she had sold eighty prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum, established a studio in two of its rooms, and made arrangements with the West End printseller Colnaghi’s to publish and sell her photographs.
Cameron had no interest in establishing a commercial studio, however, and never made commissioned portraits. Instead, she enlisted friends, family, and household staff in her activities, often costuming them as if for an amateur theatrical, aiming to capture the qualities of innocence, virtue, wisdom, piety, or passion that made them modern embodiments of classical, religious, and literary figures. A parlor maid was transformed into the Madonna, her husband into Merlin, a neighbor’s child into the infant Christ or, with swan’s wings attached, into Cupid or an angel from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Her artistic goals for photography, informed by the outward appearance and spiritual content of fifteenth-century Italian painting, were wholly original in her medium. She aimed for neither the finish and formalized poses common in the commercial portrait studios, nor for the elaborate narratives of other Victorian “high art” photographers such as H. P. Robinson and O. G. Rejlander. Her aspirations were, she said, “to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.” As she wrote to Herschel, “I believe in other than mere conventional topographic photography—map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form.”
Even allowing for slight movement as a positive attribute, posing for Cameron was no easy task. One of her models—or “victims” as Tennyson called them—left a vivid description of a photographic session with Cameron: “The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. … The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth—but here I utterly broke down, for Mr. Cameron, who was very aged, and had unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.”
Her photographs were not universally admired, especially by fellow photographers. The Photographic Journal, reviewing her submissions to the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1865, reported with a condescension that infuriated her: “Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities. A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practise. In these pictures, all that is good in photography has been neglected and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited. We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art.” The Illustrated London News countered, describing her portraits as “the nearest approach to art, or rather the most bold and successful applications of the principles of fine-art to photography.” The Photographic Journal rebutted: “Slovenly manipulation may serve to cover want of precision in intention, but such a lack and such a mode of masking it are unworthy of commendation.” Wilhelm Vogel reported the stir that her photographs provoked the following year in Berlin, where they won Cameron the gold medal: “Those large unsharp heads, spotty backgrounds, and deep opaque shadows looked more like bungling pupils’ work than masterpieces. And for this reason many photographers could hardly restrain their laughter, and mocked at the fact that such photographs had been given a place of honour. … But, little as these pictures moved the photographers who only looked for sharpness and technical qualities in general, all the more interested were the artists … [who] praised their artistic value, which is so outstanding that technical shortcomings hardly count.” Cameron dismissed the condemnation of the photographic establishment, writing later that it would have dispirited her “had I not valued that criticism at its worth,” basking instead in the positive judgment of artists and friends.
Seen with historical perspective, it is clear that Cameron possessed an extraordinary ability to imbue her photographs with a powerful spiritual content, the quality that separates them from the products of commercial portrait studios of her time. In a dozen years of work, effectively ended by the Camerons’ departure for Ceylon in 1875, the artist produced perhaps 900 images—a gallery of vivid portraits and a mirror of the Victorian soul.