Late to the Photographer’s Ball, Julia Margaret Cameron didn’t take her first photograph till she was 48 when her daughter presented her with a camera for her birthday. From that moment in 1863, it was full blast ahead for the British photographer. She tossed all the coal out of the coal room for her darkroom and the chickens out of their glass enclosed chicken house for her studio. One month later she produced what she considered her first successful print of young Annie Philpot. Elated, Cameron exclaimed, “I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day.”
At home in social circles of the celebrated and talented, Cameron photographed Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, William Michael Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Ellen Terry. Her portrait of Terry is especially poignant. A young Shakespearean actress, Terry was only 16 when she posed for her good friend Cameron on the Isle of Wight. On her honeymoon at the time, Terry was newly married to painter, George Frederick Watts, who was 30 years her senior. It was thought her decision to marry him had been largely influenced by those close to the pair who felt they would make a good match. Terry’s woeful, downcast expression, however, didn’t exactly radiate a bride’s sensual rosiness. Their “good match” dissolved in less than a year.
Along with celebrated sitters, Cameron recruited family members for her photographs. One of her subjects was her niece, little Rachel Gurney, here fitted out with fake wings to represent an Angel of the Nativity in a photograph titled I Wait in 1872. Of that occasion, her sister Laura — also pressed into angel service — later wrote, “We were scantily clad, and each had a pair of heavy swan’s wings fastened to her narrow shoulders … No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful. This is how we felt, for we never knew what Aunt Julia was going to do next.”
More than wistful or anxious, I see her sister’s Rachel’s expression as disarmingly direct, all trace of “posing” gone out of her after enduring the lengthy sitting time demanded by those early cameras. Radiating a strong inner presence, the child appears so “there”, so “herself.”
Another favorite family member Cameron photographed numerous times was her goddaughter, Julia Prinsep Stephen who, later as Julia Jackson, became the mother of Virginia Woolf.
Unappreciated by her contemporaries, Cameron’s unique style encompassed soft focus, tightly cropped portraits, and modern touches like print smudges and scratches, some deliberately made. (See a collection of her life-sized portraits published in the Daily Mail.) Largely forgotten after her death, she was rediscovered in 1948 when Helmut Gernsheim wrote a book about her work. Her reputation was further burnished when Imogen Cunningham commented, “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better.”
You can see more of Cameron’s beautiful portraits of women and girls on my Pinterest board: Cameron’s Radiant Women.
Cameron herself recognized her own worth and talent. Copywriting all her images from the beginning, she insured their enduring life. She wrote, “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
(Special thanks to the Getty Museum for their wonderful new Open Content Program, which has allowed me to freely share these images.)