In 1863, Julia Margaret Cameron’s six children were all grown or away at boarding school. Her husband was on the other side of the world — in Ceylon — attending to his coffee plantations.
That left the middle-aged matron alone on the family estate on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England. Alone, that is, except for a large house staff and several celebrity neighbors.
To help pass the time, her daughter and son-in-law gave her an impractical and extravagant gift: a camera. The accompanying card read, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude.”
Cameron had never done anything halfway. A vigilant mother— “a tigress where her children were concerned,” according to her great-niece Virginia Woolf — she swiftly redirected her energies, pouncing ferociously on an ambitious new career at the age of 48. “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
She learned the basics from two mentors and then boldly experimented — “I felt my way literally in the dark thro’ endless failures” — until she had outstripped both of them technically and artistically. Conventional Victorians approached photography as a straightforward science of creating images from life with perfect focus, fine detail and maximum fidelity. But Cameron wanted her pictures to “electrify you with delight and startle the world.” She aspired “to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.” That required special effects, so she strategically used soft focus to lend a blurry, dreamlike quality to her images. Some contemporaries ridiculed Cameron’s work as sloppy, but artists — her real constituents — recognized and celebrated her aesthetic creativity.
Over the next fifteen years, she produced hundreds of extraordinary photos that comprise a veritable “mirror of the Victorian soul.” Cameron drew on her vast social connections to take portraits of eminent men like Darwin, Longfellow and Tennyson. She also conscripted friends, relatives and servants to pose in costume to recreate fictional and historical scenes.
Like all primitive cameras of the time, hers were big, bulky contraptions that sat atop stout tripods. Photography — like many new technologies — routinely defeated casual hobbyists. Mastering the arcane secrets of that user-unfriendly science required deep pockets, painstaking attention to detail, and a willingness to splash around in poisonous chemicals.
Just taking a picture demanded arduous labor. Before film, cameras captured images one at a time, on large, fragile glass plates (12" x 10" or 15" x 12"). First, Cameron had to set up her subjects and focus the camera. Then, she ducked into the darkroom and prepared the glass plate by pouring on some flammable photosensitive syrup called collodion and “tipping” the pane “this way and that to glaze the surface. One hitch with collodion is that it loses sensitivity after ten minutes, so you had to work fast.” After dipping the plate in a second solution (silver nitrate), she stashed it in a lightproof box, hurried to the tripod and — working under under a large black hood — slid the pane into the camera and then took the picture by exposing the plate while it was still wet and waiting several minutes for the image to form.
That was the easy part. Now she had to spirit the pane back into the darkroom. “Next came development — another chemical coating, evenly applied. The plate had to be rinsed, dried, held in front of a flame ‘as hot as the hand will bear,’ carefully varnished, washed again, and dried. To make a print from it, you submerged paper in two solutions, one of egg white, and one of silver nitrate; no enlargement was needed, so the paper was placed flat against the negative, exposed to sunlight, then washed and dried. To be fancy, you could tone it with gold chloride.”
This “was about as easy as running a laboratory on a waterslide, against the clock.” “Each step of the process offered ample room for error: the fragile glass plate had to be perfectly clean to start with and kept free from dust throughout; it needed to be evenly coated and submerged at various stages; the chemical solutions had to be correctly and freshly prepared.”
Cameron’s subjects suffered for her art. Long exposures required them to endure blinding flashes while remaining stock still for two to nine minutes. Tennyson called her “a dreadful woman,” described posing for her as “torture” and called her models “victims.” Ruthless in realizing her creative vision, she bossed and bullied, raged at and flattered her models. “Mrs. Cameron alternates between the seventh heaven and the bottomless pit,” one of her friends wrote. “She lives upon superlatives.”
One model wrote, “The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen.… The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth — but here I utterly broke down, for Mr. Cameron, who was very aged, and had unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.”
While her subjects may not have enjoyed the process, they often appreciated the resulting images. Sir John Herschel , a founding father of photography (he coined the term), wrote that the above portrait “beats hollow everything I ever liked in photography before.”
Darwin thought she made him look “reverent.”
Cameron energetically marketed her images to museums and collectors. This generated little income (compared to her household’s enormous expenses), but she enjoyed the acclaim.
Her son, Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, took the above photo of his mother.
In 1875, she and her husband moved to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Few images from this period of her life survive, but these glimpses of colonialism help round out her otherwise selective “mirror of Victorian society.” (Her art entirely ignored industrial Britain’s grim cities and “dark Satanic Mills.”)
Cameron died in Ceylon in 1879. “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me,” she wrote, “and at length that longing has been satisfied.”