Editorial Feature

The Dreamy Photography of Julia Margaret Cameron

A pioneering photographer who turned science into an art

It's a common tale: at a young age a keen-eyed prodigy will get their hands on a camera, become hooked, and spend their formative years honing their craft as a photographer. But that wasn't the case with Julia Margaret Cameron. Born in Calcutta in 1815, it wasn't until the age of 48 years old that Cameron took up photography.

Her career was short, spanning only 11 years of her life, but in that time she forged a reputation that was both controversial and influential.

Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen, by Julia Margaret Cameron, negative 1864; print about 1875 (From the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum)
"O hark", by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1875 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Cameron's father was a British East India Company official and her mother was a descendant of French aristocracy. She was known for being flamboyant, sociable and artistically eccentric. In 1838 she married Charles Hay Cameron, who worked as a reformer of Indian law and education.

Cameron was first given a camera in 1863, a gift from her daughter and son-in-law. Due to her position as a prominent hostess in colonial society, and with her husbands wealth from investing in coffee plantations in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), Cameron wasn't stifled by the traditional housekeeping roles of a woman in her time. She was able to pursue her artistic talents, and had servants who could help her with the era's weighty photographic equipment.

Julia Jackson, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867 (From the collection on the J. Paul Getty Museum)
Thomas Carlyle, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

The soft focus style that Cameron established herself with was often seen as slovenly and full of mistakes by her contemporaries, despite being painstakingly and laboriously crafted and developed. What others saw as bad technique, Cameron saw as beautiful.

Her portraits were considered unconventionally intimate for the fashion of the time, but her work endured and retained significance due to the often noteworthy subjects. Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Ellen Terry all sat for her.

Edward John Eyre, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867 (From the collection of National Portrait Gallery)
Julia Jackson, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867 (From the collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Cameron was widely appreciated by pre-Raphaelite artists for her staged scenes based on religious and literary works. These photographic illustrations resembled oil paintings due to their rich details, historical costumes and intricate draperies, often imitating the style of the Old Masters.

Her allegorical work led to her friend, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, commissioning her to take photographs for his collection Idylls of the King.

The Rosebud Garden of Girls, by Julia Margaret Cameron, June 1868
The Whisper of the Muse / Portrait of G.F. Watts, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 4/1/1865 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1874 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Cameron's first museum exhibit was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum, which is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was the only exhibit of her work during her lifetime, and in 1968 the Museum offered the artist two rooms to use as a portrait studio - potentially making her its first artist-in-residence.

Sir Galahad and "The Pale Nun", by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1874 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Ophelia Study No. 2, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867 (From the collection of George Eastman Museum)

Cameron died in 1879, but she left an impressive repertoire of work despite her short career. This is in part because she used her shrewd business sense and registered each of her works with the copyright office and kept detailed records of her collection.

Nowadays she is considered a pioneer for treating photography as a marriage of both art and science, and her work has been credited as an influence by future artists, including Nan Goldin and Imogen Cunningham.

Explore more by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Paul and Virginia, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)
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