Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 – 26 January 1879 ) was an English photographer considered one of the most significant portraitists of the 19th century, who managed to make a vast production of images during her very short career (she made around 900 photographs over a 12-year period). She is known for her soft-focus close-ups of famous Victorian men and for illustrative images depicting characters from mythology, Christianity, and literature. She also produced sensitive portraits of women and children.
Born in India in 1815, after showing a keen interest in photography for many years, she took up the practice at the late age of 48, after her daughter gifted her a sliding-box camera as a Christmas present. The gift was meant to provide a diversion while her husband was in Ceylon tending to his coffee plantations, and her daughter stated “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.” After receiving the camera, she cleared out a chicken coop and converted it into her studio.
Thanks also to a large group of knowledge, she managed to photograph some of the most famous personalities of the Victorian Age, even if her dreamy and evocative images was contentious in her own time. The series that made her most famous was the illustration of “Idylls of the King”, a series of 12 poems written by her neighbor on the Isle of Wight, Alfred Tennyson, who personally asked her to illustrate his books.
Her style was not much appreciated by critics of the time: they loved her softly focused and unrefined images, but considered her illustrative photographs amateurish and hammy. She used to blur her images voluntarily, to make the atmosphere of the photographs halfway between dream and reality, a style famous also in a pictorial artistic trend in vogue in the mid-1800s, the Pre-Raphaelites.
However, her portraits of respected men, such as the dramatist Henry Taylor, Charles Darwin, and mathematician and astronomer Sir John Herschel (the experimental photographer, who invented the blueprint), have been consistently praised and described as “extraordinarily powerful” and “wholly original”.
In October 1873, her daughter died in childbirth. Two years later, because of her husband’s ill health, because to be nearer to their sons who managed the family coffee plantations, which had been badly harmed by a fungus and after having known a certain reputation as a portrait photographer on English soil, she moved, together with her husband, to the island of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, where she tried with all her strength to continue the photographic activity, but without success. The lack of pure water to develop images greatly limited the photographer’s production, who fell ill and died four years after moving to the British colony.
Her photographic research, particularly significant because it was done by a woman in a period in which photography was the exclusive preserve of men, is still particularly appreciated today. The sophisticated shots, the close-up close-ups and the dreamy effect made school many decades after they were made.
The famous photographer Imogen Cunningham, in 1975, stated: “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better.”
Source and Images: Wikipedia