Julia Margaret Cameron, considered one of the most important portraitists of the 19th century, was a British photographer. She is famous for her illustrative images depicting characters form mythology, Christianity, and literature, as well as for her soft-focus close-ups of famous Victorian men and sensitive portraits of women and children.
She showed a keen interest in photography for many years, however she only took up the practice at the relatively late age of 48, when her daughter gave her a camera as present. Quickly she produced a large body of work capturing the beauty, the innocence, or the genius of those who posed to her.
Cameron also created unique allegorical images inspired by tableaux vivants, theatre, 15th century Italian paintings, and the works of her contemporaries. Her images have been described as extraordinarily powerful and original. She has been credited for the first close-ups in the history of the medium.
Her work was contentious in her own time, her illustrative photographs being considered by the critics amateurish and exaggerated, they lambasted her softly focused and unrefined images too. Nevertheless, her portraits of respected men, such as Henry Taylor, Charles Darwin or Sir John Herschel have been praised.
Julia Margaret Cameron was an educated and cultured woman. She was familiar with medieval art, the Renaissance, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Her career was short but very productive, she made around 900 photographs over a period of 12 years.
Her work may have been influenced by the contemporary interest in the study of the human physiognomy as a sign of a person’s character (phrenology); and her compositions and use of light have been connected to Raphael, Rembrandt and Titian, while her technique was influenced especially by John Herschel, Cameron’s first teacher, who relayed to her the news on the inventions of photography by Talbot and Daguerre. She received influence of other photographers such as Reginald Southey and David Wilkie Wynfield.
Cameron’s portraits are the product of her intimacy and regard for the subject, in them she tried to capture the essence or particular qualities, such as genius, beauty or innocence of her models. She chose her female subjects for their beauty, especially long-necked, long-haired, immature beauty that is familiar in Pre-Raphaelites paintings.
Her photographs are placed into three categories: distinguished portraits of men, delicate portraits of women, and illustrative allegories based on religious, mythological or literary works.
Her portraits of men were a kind of “hero-worship”. Most of them were well-known scientists, writers or clergymen of the Victorian era. She tried to capture the greatness of her contemporaries, influenced by the idea of phrenology and displaying a masterly command of chiaroscuro, which is an important reference to the work of the Old Masters of painting.
Her images of women are softer. Cameron adopted a with less dramatic lighting and a more typical distance between the sitter and the camera. In general, these images are more conventional than the portraits of men, and less dynamic too. She photographed, almost exclusively, young women. Several of her images of young women obscure their individuality and represent their identity as multifaceted and changeable, by presenting them reflected in mirrors or in pairs.
Cameron photographed her own children, those of relatives and young locals. Children was a popular subject during the Victorian era. In her photographs, she tried to capture their innocence and kindness. Choosing to depict them as angels or as children from stories of the Bible.
The illustrative photographs were, probably, the most challenging works. The chances that someone moved during the long exposures were greater. She needed more light to shorten the time of exposure and arrest the motion. working with more sitters meant that she needed a greater depth of field to put everyone in focus. In this category, her narrative portraits of women were influenced by tableaux vivants and amateur theatre, in these images the women are depicted in the idealised Victorian roles of mother and wife.
- Cameron established herself among Calcutta’s Anglo-Indian upper class and among London’s cultural elite, where she formed her own salon at the seaside village of Freshwater, Isle of Wight that was frequented by distinguished Victorians.
- Cameron found inspiration to her allegorical photographs in Shakespearean characters, Arthurian legends, and religious scenes such as the Annunciation.