“[F]rom the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
Julia Margaret Cameron
Although she would become one of Victorian Britain’s most famous photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron started taking pictures relatively late in life. In 1863, at 48 years old, she received her first camera from one of her six children, a gift meant to provide her with a hobby since they were grown.
Having lived in India and London, Cameron’s family had recently moved to the Isle of Wight, a popular location for Britain’s cultural elite—residents included essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle, author Charles Dickens, inventor John Herschel, and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Cameron photographed these famous tenants and anyone else who would let her. Such local figures as the postman, as well as her own family and servants, appear in many of her images. Her tenacity and eccentricity eventually became well known; she allegedly followed promising-looking people on the streets until they consented to model for her. A well-read, educated woman, she often pressed her subjects into posing for pastoral, allegorical, historical, literary, and biblical scenes, such as in Madonna with Children (1864). In this photograph, she transforms Mary Kellaway, a local dressmaker, and Elizabeth and Percy Keown, children of a gunner in the Royal Army, into figures in an enduring art historical scene.
Cameron is best known today for her moving and sensitive portraits of eminent Victorians. A paramount example is her 1867 photograph of Sir John F. W. Herschel, in which the scientist, mathematician, and photographic experimenter looks directly at the camera, emerging from the shadows with the tousled hair and deep facial lines of a man devoted to the intellectual life. Her soft-focus style, ridiculed by many critics and photographers of the period who were devoted to sharp precision in photography, gives Herschel a timeless quality and emphasizes the essence of the man instead of transitory details. About such sittings, Cameron wrote, “When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.”
Note: opening quote is from Julia Margaret Cameron, “Annals of my Glass House ,” first published in Photo Beacon (Chicago) 2 (1890): 157–60. Reprinted, by permission, from the original manuscript in the collection of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, London, reprinted in Beaumont Newhall, ed., Photography, Essays and Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography (New York: Museum of Modern Art; Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1980), 135, https://oscarenfotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/cameron-annals-of-my-glass-house.pdf.
Kristen Gaylord, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography, 2016