In 1863, right after her 48th birthday, Julia Margaret Cameron received her first camera as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law with the words, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.” The gift came at a moment to Cameron when her husband was investigating his family’s failed coffee crop in Caylon, Sri Lanka, when all their sons were grown and their only daughter had married and moved away. Within a year, the mother of six, a deeply religious and well read Cameron became a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland and 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.”
In her photography, Cameron strove to capture beauty. She wrote, “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.” Favoring lenses that required long exposure times, Cameron enlisted her family, friends and household staff in her activities to capture the qualities of innocence, excellence, piety and passion that made them modern manifestations of classical, religious, and literary figures.
She was obsessive about her photography, with subjects sitting for countless exposures as she laboriously coated, exposed, and processed each wet plate. One of her models even left a vivid description of a photographic session with her: “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.”
Cameron’s works were mostly focused on Impressionism in both look and theory. Unlike most of the artists’ works of her era, which were hugely influenced by Pre-Raphaelite movement. Like many artists, Cameron was not fully understood and appreciated in her lifetime. The Photographic Journal reviewed her submissions to the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1865 with a condescension, stating: “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.” But seen with historical look, Cameron worked against photography itself in order to create a great picture is what makes her one of the most important artists and photographers of Victorian Era.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons