Julia Margaret Cameron was the quintessence of a Victorian Lady. She was loving, caring, sentimental, and abundantly generous with her family, her friends, and needy strangers. She showered her friends with gifts–too much was never enough. Mrs. Cameron was a voluminous correspondent, sometimes 300 lengthy letters a month to friends and family. She was interested in beauty in art, literature and poetry. She was a contemporary of the Bronte sisters, and did attempt a novel. Her energy and zest for life were overwhelming and today might be viewed as compulsive.
In 1863, her husband returned with their sons to Ceylon to oversee the coffee crop. In their absence, Mrs. Cameron became quite lonely and depressed. She visited her daughter and son-in-law, but her depression persisted. As she prepared to return home, they presented her with a large wooden camera and darkroom equipment. The camera was the answer to her quest. She later wrote “The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply-seated love for the beautiful, and from the first moment I handled my lens with tender ardor.” At age 48, Cameron taught herself the art of photography. She began exhibiting her work one-year later.
Julia would convince friends, household staff, or family to dress in costumes and pose for her to create religious or literary pictorials. However, the photographs that secured her place in the history of photography are her portraits. She tried to record not just the image of the subject, but the inner person as well. Cameron experimented with soft focus to achieve a more expressive image. This style sparked a degree of controversy among her peers, some claiming that either her lens was not sharp or she didn’t understand focus. She consistently claimed she was purposely focusing soft. One-hundred-and-twenty-five years later Cameron’s style is emulated by many sensitive portraitists.
Many of the friends she photographed are also historically important: Sir John Herschel, Alfred Tennyson, and Charles Darwin are among the notable figures that sat for her. Cameron’s portrait of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (mother of Virginia Woolf) was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1974 for 1500 ($2800); the most ever paid for a photograph at that time.
Mrs. Cameron returned to Ceylon with her husband in 1875. She died there in 1879. Charles Hay Cameron died one year later.
By Vi Whitmire For IPHF