Although Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic career began later in her life (age 48), and was short lived, spanning just eleven years (1864 – 1875), it was truly epic. She shot the glitterati and literati of Victorian Era England and, in the process, pioneered a new style of picture taking. Her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits were criticized as “sloppy” then, but are now revered as the first examples of photography as art that continue to influence modern photography today.
Julia’s family was as well connected and colorful as her photographic subjects. She was born in Calcutta, India to Adeline de l’Etang and James Pattle, a British official of the East India Company. Her maternal grandfather, Chevalier Antoine de l’Etang, is reported to have been one of Marie Antoinette’s lovers, as well as an officer in the Garde du Corps of King Louis XVI. Later in her life, she would become great-aunt to author Virginia Woolf.
Educated in France, Julia returned to India, and in 1838 married Charles Hay Cameron, a man twenty years her senior. In 1848, Charles retired, and moved the family to London, England. In 1860, they purchased property on the Isle of Wight, which is where Julia’s life of rubbing elbows with notable Victorian artists, poets, and thinkers began (Alfred Lord Tennyson was their neighbor), as did her ambitions to be recognized as a significant artist of her time.
“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
In December 1863, Julia received a camera, her very first, from her daughter. At the time, she was 48 years old, a mother of six, and a deeply religious, well-read, somewhat eccentric woman. That gift launched her unexpected career as a photographer.
Julia wrote, “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.”
A woman ahead of her time, she took on the challenges of handling large cameras and dangerous chemicals, and perfecting what was then, a labor-intensive art that was highly dependent upon crucial timing.
Ignoring conventions, Julia experimented with composition and focus, with her subjects sitting for countless exposures as she laboriously coated, exposed, and processed each wet plate. She intentionally avoided capturing the perfect resolution, and opted for creating a slight blur. She achieved this with carefully directed light, soft focus, and long exposures “that allowed the sitters’ slight movement to register in her pictures.” The results were unconventional for the time… images full of life, personality, and intimacy.
The bulk of Julia’s photographs fit into two categories – closely framed portraits and illustrative allegories based on religious and literary works. Her portraits featured people from her growing circle of famous friends like Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and actress Ellen Terry (lead image from 1864).
“Annie, my first success”, January 2, 1864. Julia’s first print with which she was satisfied.
While her newfangled style was condemned by some of her contemporaries as “sloppy craftsmanship”, Julia was, in fact, one of the most prolific and advanced amateurs of her time. Today, this Woman You Should Know is regarded as one of the most important early photographers, and one of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography. Her work is equally recognized for its impact on modern photography.