Born in Calcutta, India on June 11, 1815 to East India Company executive James Pattle and French heiress Adeline de l'Etang, Julia Margaret Cameron enjoyed a life of leisure and privilege. She remained in Calcutta until her marriage to Charles Hay Cameron in 1838. A decade later, the Camerons moved to England, first settling in London, and later called the Isle of Wight home. Mrs. Cameron quickly gained a well-deserved reputation for philanthropy, but by middle age, she felt something was missing from her life. Nearing 50, Mrs. Cameron picked up her first camera, and although her career was relatively brief, she became the most celebrated amateur photographer in the history of the medium.
Possessing raw natural talent and artistic sensibilities, Julia Margaret Cameron published her first series of photographs in 1863. By this time, photography was becoming increasingly popular commercially, but was still widely regarded as an art form reserved for and to be enjoyed by only the most affluent classes. Despite her great wealth, Mrs. Cameron sought to make photography a widely accessible form of artistic expression. This is not to imply, however, that she did not photograph her famous friends. Some of her most renowned portrait subjects include the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia, poets Lord Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, essayist Thomas Carlyle, astronomer and mathematician Sir John Herschel, and scientist Charles Darwin, among others.
It is widely believed that Julia Margaret Cameron's portraits are the first known close-ups, showing only the heads (or profiles) and shoulders of her sitters against a dark background. Her portraits are also characterized by her personal preference for photographing her subjects' faces in soft focus. She also did not mind if there were streaks on her negatives; in fact, she actively encouraged them for the sake of photographic realism.
Mrs. Cameron's most famous portraits were of women and utilized predominantly religious motifs. Her favorite models were Mary Ryan and Mary Ann Hillier, whose Madonna poses have become iconic representations of the Victorian Age. These portraits walk a fine aesthetic line between sexual and non-sexual, and the blur of the soft focus gives them an ethereal quality. As was her custom, she would also leave any dirt or fingerprints on the glass plates to enhance the earthiness of her portraits.
Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs were popular with the critics and the public alike, and many were awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals in England, Germany, Austria, and the United States. At the behest of Lord Tennyson, Mrs. Cameron produced several illustrations to accompany several of his poems, including his masterpiece Idylls of the King, and were published in two volumes in 1874 and 1875. In addition to portraiture, Mrs. Cameron also composed her own series of poems that were featured in Macmillan's Magazine. She and her husband moved to Ceylon in 1875, which is where Mrs. Cameron died on January 26, 1879. While her portraits may appear to be overly sentimental to the contemporary eye, Julia Margaret Cameron’s works transcended class boundaries and revealed the then-unexplored artistic possibilities of photography to the world.
1908 Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. III (New York: The Macmillan Company), p. 752.
1996 Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs (London: I. B. Tauris & Co.), pp. 43, 47-48.
2001 Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 21.
2007 Photography and Society in the Victorian Era (Munich: GRIN Verlag), p. 14.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 259-260.
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