In this photograph, Cameron has transformed a local woman into a timeless icon. Instead of the high-necked fashion of the day, the subject wears a classical-looking garment with a wide, draping neckline, and her hair is loosely coiffed. She gazes to the side, seemingly absorbed in reverie and unaware of the camera.
Although she was one of Victorian Britain’s most famous photographers, Cameron started taking pictures relatively late in life. She received her first camera at age forty-eight from one of her children, a gift meant to provide her with a hobby. Having lived in India and London, the family had recently moved to the Isle of Wight, a popular location for Britain’s cultural elite: residents included philosopher Thomas Carlyle, author Charles Dickens, inventor John Herschel, and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In addition to these famous neighbors, she also photographed family, servants, and local figures, some of whom, it is reported, she followed on the streets until they consented to model for her.
Sometimes her portraits were studies in the character of her sitters; at other times she posed her subjects in pastoral, allegorical, historical, literary, or biblical scenes. Her soft-focus style and intentional retention of imperfections, such as the spots and streaks here, were ridiculed by her contemporaries devoted to photographic precision, but Cameron’s poignant images are now some of the most influential portraits in art history.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)