Julia Margaret Cameron

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Julia Margaret Cameron (1870) photographed by Henry Herschel Hay Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron (born Julia Margaret Pattle ; born June 11, 1815 in Calcutta , † January 26, 1879 in Kalutara , Ceylon ) was a British photographer.

She began photography after long years of an upper-class life as a housewife and mother in the British colony of India and England at the age of 48. With extraordinary portraits and religious-romantic scenes, she became the most important British photographer of the Victorian era .


Charles Hay Cameron (1864)

Cameron was born on June 11, 1815 in Calcutta, India. Her father James Peter Pattle worked as a manager for the " East India Company ". Her mother's maiden name was Adeline Maria de l'Etang. Julia Margaret spent her youth with her French grandmother in Versailles . After completing her education, she returned to India in 1834. During a stay with her parents in South Africa in 1836, at the Cape of Good Hope, she met the lawyer Charles Hay Cameron, 20 years her senior, who was then a member of the Supreme Council of India. Both married on February 1, 1838 in Calcutta. The couple had a total of six children, not an unusual number at the time.

Dimbola Lodge (2009)
Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight

After Charles retired in 1848, the Camerons moved to Great Britain . In the London borough of Kensington they lived near well-known artists and made friends with them, for example with the painter George Frederic Watts and the poets Henry Taylor and Lord Alfred Tennyson . A visit to Farringford House, Tennyson's residence on the Isle of Wight , led her to buy two adjoining properties on Freshwater Bay in the west of the island in 1860. They named the property Dimbola Lodge after the family's plantation on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The Isle of Wight, located near the English south coast off Portsmouth , has a scenic and pleasant climate, and was a popular place to live and vacation as early as the 19th century. Prominent residents and summer guests included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert , Charles Darwin , Charles Dickens , Karl Marx , Lewis Carroll, and William Turner , among many others . For Julia Margaret Cameron, Dimbola Lodge became the starting point and center of her life as a photographer. Here she received and portrayed her famous guests, here she arranged her well-known pictures. Henry Taylor wrote of Dimbola Lodge: "... truly a house in which everyone was happy and in which everyone, whether man, woman or child, was always welcome." Today there is a museum here, which contains information about Julia Margaret Cameron's life and work conveyed.

In 1875 the Camerons moved to Kalutara on the west coast of Ceylon, about 35 km south of Colombo. Julia Margaret was at the height of her fame as a photographer at this point. Two exhibitions of her work ran simultaneously in London and Bournemouth . Her pictures were so popular that new negatives were made from her early works and 70 motifs were republished in two different tones - red-brown and black. Only a few photos were taken on Ceylon, mostly of plantation workers. In 1878 the Camerons traveled briefly to England again. Julia Margaret died in Kalutara at the age of 63. One of her last letters was to Lady Tennyson. In it she looked back with satisfaction on what had been achieved: “A blessing rested on my photographic work; It gave millions of pleasure and very many a deeper happiness. "

In a lengthy obituary from The Times it was said: “Mrs. Cameron reached a large audience with her original photographs, in which she produced a series of portraits and group pictures that are unique in their suggestiveness in a very unique way, neglecting the otherwise usual sharpness of the representation. [...] Mrs. Cameron's particular enthusiasm, the energy with which she approached each of her undertakings, her rare selflessness and helpfulness made her dear to a large group of friends [...]. "


The way to photography

Sir John Herschel (1867)

Since her return from India in 1848, Julia Margaret Cameron pursued her affinity for art and literature. She read the contemporary poets and attended art exhibitions. She was also interested in the young form of expression in photography. She was friends with the astronomer Sir John Herschel , who had made a contribution to the new medium in particular through his collaboration with William Henry Fox Talbot and had already sent her some of its recordings, so-called calotypes , to Calcutta in 1841 . She gave her numerous friends photo albums with photos by various photographers, including Oscar Gustave Rejlander . This Swedish-British pioneer of fine art photography visited the Isle of Wight in 1863 to portray her neighbor Alfred Tennyson. There she could watch him at work. In December of the same year, her eldest daughter gave her a camera as a present as a means of diversion during her husband's frequent business trips. A glass henhouse and a coal cellar were converted into a studio and a darkroom through simple modifications ; The hobby turned into a passion in a very short time.

Problematic technique

Julia Margaret Cameron had to deal with an immature technique. The production of durable photographic images was not invented until the 1830s, and a process had existed since around 1850 that was also applicable to amateurs, but was still very cumbersome. In this so-called wet collodion process, she used large-format glass plates as the image carrier (a picture of typical size, Cameron's portrait of Sir John Herschel, measured 33.5 × 28 cm). Before and after each exposure, the plates were treated several times with liquid chemicals. For the actual exposure, they had to be placed in the camera in a moist, light-tight cassette, then exposed and immediately processed further in a dark room. Some of Cameron's plates were coated unevenly and showed grains of dust, the prints were often imperfectly fixed and faded. In a critical article in the "Photographic Journal" it was said: "Mrs. Cameron will achieve better results once she learns how to use her device properly ” .

Her handling of image sharpness was met with widespread misunderstanding, and large parts of her photos are often blurred. She herself admitted initial difficulties in focusing , but then declared her technique to be the intended stylistic device: "What does sharpness mean - and who has the right to say which sharpness is the right one?" Many contemporaries, especially the experts, did not want her in this consequences. The “Photographic Journal” of February 15, 1865 read: “Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of blurred portraits of celebrities. We have to give the lady the courage to be original, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities ” . Mathematician, writer and photographer Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and a visitor to the Isle of Wight, said: “That evening Mrs. Cameron and I had a joint exhibition of our photographs. Yours were all deliberately fuzzy - some very picturesque, others just ugly; but she spoke of them as if they were the pinnacle of art ” . She dealt with such critical statements quite self-confidently: “The“ Photographic Society of London ”would have completely discouraged me in their journal if I hadn't rated this criticism correctly. It was gross and too obviously unfair for me to adopt it ... ” .


Fellow citizens described Julia Margaret Cameron as a determined, extremely energetic person. Their photography sessions were lengthy and very stressful for the models. Tennyson accompanied the then popular poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to her studio and warned him, “Longfellow, you will have to do whatever she says. I'll be back soon and see what's left of you. ” Because she often used weak light sources, she had long exposure times of three to seven minutes, which were actually no longer necessary with the technology at the time. If a shot was to be repeated, the photographer had to go to her darkroom to prepare the next plate; the models were also forbidden to move during this time. In addition to Cameron's thematic specifications, it was these technical conditions that produced the desired expression of concentration, dignity, resignation or inwardness in the finished pictures. Cheerfulness was not one of the emotions it represented.

Cameron was a believer in the Anglican Church and a moralist . She was of the opinion that the quality of a work of art depends to a large extent on the morality of its content and was convinced that religious art was justified not only in the past but at any time and that it could also be continued with the means of photography. Cornelius Jabez Hughes (1819–1884), a writer and photographer with his own studio on the Isle of Wight, wrote about his profession at the time: “When people try with depth and earnestness to express their ideas of moral and religious beauty by adding height Applying the art of photography, then we can be proud of our glorious art and of having contributed to its development ” . This formulation exactly matched Cameron's ideas.

Because of her social position, she did not see herself as a professional photographer. In her autobiography she described how she politely but very firmly refused a somewhat presumptuous formulated order ( "Miss Lydia Louisa Summerhouse Donkins informs Mrs. Cameron, that she wishes to sit her ..." ), pointing out that she do not take photos professionally. But she regarded her pictures as “achievements of art” and sought the public for them. As early as 1864 she was accepted as a member of the “ Royal Photographic Society ” in London. The first of numerous exhibitions followed in 1865. She took part in competitions and won several awards. In total, she published over 1200 photographs, many of which were sold; she had a copyright registered for her recordings , always with the addition "From Life".


Cameron's technical inadequacies or idiosyncrasies contrasted with her widely acclaimed ability to create images. Her portraits looked unusually lively. In composition and lighting, she concentrated on the essentials, leaving out the background decoration that was common at the time . Even before she started working as a photographer, she wanted to be close to famous men and women of her time. Now she hoped to make what was special about them visible on her photos. In addition to Taylor, Tennyson, Herschel, Longfellow, Watts and Darwin, she portrayed the poet Robert Browning , the Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle , the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray , the painter Holman Hunt , the illustrator and writer Edward Lear , the actress Ellen Terry and other. In addition to the classic portraits, she took pictures in which she assigned specific roles to her models. For example, Taylor posed as the prophet Jeremiah, Tennyson as a monk, and her husband Charles Hay Cameron as the magician Merlin .

When she visited her sister Sarah Prinsep, in whose London apartment artists and intellectuals were often guests, she had taken her camera with her, “... to portray the great Carlyle. Whenever I had such men in front of my camera, I tried with all my soul to conscientiously portray both the inner size and the outer appearance of the person concerned. A photo that was taken was like the embodiment of a prayer. This feeling was particularly intense when I photographed my famous, revered and loved friend Sir John Herschel. He was both a teacher and a high priest for me. I had loved and adored him from an early age, and after a friendship of 31 years I was given the great task of portraying mankind ” .

Religious and literary images


Julia Margaret Cameron had no formal schooling, but she was well read. For her figurative arrangements she drew from various sources: the Old and New Testament , the mythology of ancient Greek, Renaissance painting , the works of classical and romantic English literature. The work of the Pre-Raphaelites , a brotherhood of young British painters founded in 1848, were key models . Their name referred to the Italian painting of the 14th and 15th centuries, so "before Raphael " . They wanted to replace the prevailing idealistic-academic style of painting with a naturalistic method of representation, also for spiritual and religious subjects - or, in the words of one of the artists: they wanted to paint living beings instead of wax figures. The new style gained significant influence on 19th century English painting within a few years. Cameron agreed with the views of the Pre-Raphaelites: “It is my endeavor to ennoble photography and to secure the character and effect of a high art for it by combining the real and the ideal and with all admiration for poetry and beauty of the Reality do not sacrifice anything, ” she wrote in a letter to Sir John Herschel on December 31, 1864.

However, her interest in reality did not go so far that she made everyday things such as profession, social status or individual characteristics of her models the subject of her allegorical pictures. Rather, she wanted to make the immortal visible, the timeless type - the maternal Madonna , the suffering Ophelia, the sinful Guinevere , the wild forest nymph and so on. To do this, she asked or ordered relatives, guests and even random strollers in front of her camera, often members of the house staff. Her chambermaid Mary Hillier was so often exempted from housework and instead had to pose as the Virgin Mary that she was only called Mary Madonna where she lived.

Example: Lancelot and Guinevere

Farewell to Lancelot and Guinevere
Beatrice Cenci

In 1874 Tennyson suggested to his neighbor Cameron to illustrate his work "Idylls of the King", a cycle of epic poems on the Arthurian legend . Tennyson's pictorial poetry had given the photographer inspiration for years. She therefore enthusiastically accepted the assignment and worked on it for more than three months - also because the author made it a point to bring his own visual ideas. More than two hundred photographs were taken for the twelve illustrations, forty-two for the farewell scene between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere alone . Here, too, Cameron's imagery was based on that of the Pre-Raphaelites. In doing so, she allowed the mystical and the fantastic to flow into her works - elements that were previously not found in the field of photography. Wood engravings were made from Cameron's photos for the publication of the cycle of poems, but the publication was not a success; Tennyson then had them publish a book of their own with excerpts from his poems and pasted photo prints.

Example: Beatrice Cenci

Between 1870 and 1875, Cameron sent twenty-eight of her recordings to Victor Hugo . Among them was a picture with which she interpreted the historical figure of Beatrice Cenci , a Roman patrician daughter in the 16th century who was abused by her father and forced to incest , who agreed to commit murder of her father with her stepmother and brothers and in old age was executed for 22 years. Painters, writers and composers have been fascinated by the tragic figure since the Renaissance. Cameron's model was May Prinsep, an adopted child of her sister Sarah. The French historian and writer Jean-Marie Bruson commented on the photo: “A still childlike face in a flood of hair, modeled by soft light and bathed in a dreamlike blur, seems to tremble with suppressed emotion and expresses the young girl's desperation in a most impressive manner her devastating fate. " Victor Hugo congratulated the photographer on her photos: " Nobody has ever captured and used the sun's rays as you did. "

The autobiography

In her unfinished autobiography "Annals Of My Glass House" from 1874 Julia Margaret Cameron described her life as a photographer. The text was first published by her youngest son in 1889, ten years after her death, in the catalog of the London exhibition “Mrs. Cameron's Photographs ”. Some of their notes read:

“My coal cellar became a darkroom and a glass chicken house that I once gave to my children became my studio; the hens were freed and hopefully not eaten. My sons gave up freshly laid eggs and they all sympathized with my new job since the company of hens and chicks was replaced by that of poets, prophets, painters and lovable young women ... ” .

“I tried to capture everything beautiful that came before my eyes, and in the long run the effort was successful. [...] I started without any prior knowledge. I didn't know where to put my camera, how to adjust the focus, and to my horror my first picture was destroyed when I ran my hand over the coating on the glass plate ”.

“My husband gazed at each of my pictures with delight from start to finish, and it has become a daily habit of mine to walk up to him with every glass plate and listen to his enthusiastic applause. This habit of walking into the dining room with my wet picture plates spoiled so many tablecloths with indelible stains of silver nitrate that I would have been banished from any less tolerant household ... ”.

Great-niece Virginia Woolf

Julia Duckworth (previously Julia Jackson), Cameron's niece (1867)

Cameron's favorite models were her niece Julia Jackson (after her second marriage, Mrs. Herbert Duckworth). Their daughter was the writer Virginia Woolf , who in 1926 together with the painter and art critic Roger Fry at the New York publishing house Harcourt, Brace wrote the illustrated book “Julia Margaret Cameron. Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women ” . In an introductory biographical essay , she described her great-aunt as a strong-willed personality who had spent many exhausting years as a housewife and mother before almost by chance she became an important artist at the age of 48. Virginia Woolf's only play also dealt with her 19th century creative relative. It was called “Freshwater”, was performed in front of friends on a London studio stage in 1935, and compassionately but also ironically described the values ​​of Victorian society within which Julia Margaret Cameron had moved - in just two generations these views had radically changed.


  • Halla Beloff: Facing Julia Margaret Cameron. In: History of Photography 17 (1993), pp. 115-117.
  • Mirjam Brusius: Blurriness as an early photo criticism. Julia Margaret Cameron's question about the extent of photography in the 19th century. In: Ingeborg Reichle, Steffen Siegel (eds.): Massless pictures. Visuelle Ästhetik der Transgression , Munich 2009, pp. 341–358. ISBN 978-3-7705-4801-9
  • Helmut Gernsheim : Julia Margaret Cameron. Her Life and Photographic Work , New York 1975.
  • Kirsten A. Hoving: 'Flashing tho' the Glooming ': Julia Margaret Cameron's, Eccentricity'. In: History of Photography 27 (2003), pp. 45-59.
  • Joanne Lukitsh: Julia Margaret Cameron , Berlin (Phaidon) 2006. ISBN 0-7148-4618-X
  • Sylvia Wolf: Julia Margaret Cameron's Women , New Haven, London (Yale University Press) 1998. ISBN 0-300-07781-5
  • Virginia Woolf , Roger Fry (Eds.): Julia Margaret Cameron. Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women , New York (Harcourt, Brace) 1926
  • Debra N. Mancoff: Women who changed art Prestel Munich 2012, ISBN 978-3791347325 , pp. 41, 48–49, 140
  • Christina Haberlik, Ira Diana Mazzoni : 50 classics - artists, painters, sculptors and photographers . Gerstenberg, Hildesheim 2002, ISBN 978-3-8067-2532-2 , pp. 68-71.

Web links

Commons : Julia Margaret Cameron  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. [1] Homepage of the Dimbola Lodge Museum (English)
  2. [2] Homepage of the Dimbola Lodge Museum (English)
  3. [3] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  4. [4] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  5. [5]  ( Page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Biographical text. @1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.biografiennews.blog.de  
  6. [6] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  7. [7] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  8. [8] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  9. [9] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  10. [10] Biographical text and picture interpretations (English)
  11. Archive link ( Memento of the original from July 10, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Excerpts from the autobiography "Annals Of My Glass House" (English)  @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.ngv.vic.gov.au
  12. [11]  ( Page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Biographical text. @1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.biografiennews.blog.de  
  13. Archive link ( Memento of the original from July 10, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Excerpts from the autobiography "Annals Of My Glass House" (English)  @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.ngv.vic.gov.au
  14. [12]  ( Page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Biographical text. @1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.biografiennews.blog.de  
  15. [13] Biographical text and picture interpretations (English)
  16. [14] Biographical text with quotations (English)
  17. [15] Biographical text with quotations (English)