Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta, India, on June 11, 1815. Her father Jame Pattle, worked for the East India Company, a British-owned business that traded Indian products to foreign countries. Julia was the fourth of ten children.
When Julia was three, her mother, Adeline, took her and a younger sister, Sarah, to France to live with their grandmother and be educated. The sisters stayed for years. They must have missed their parents, but they loved their grandmother and she adored them. They also loved the beauty of Versailles, the place where she lived.
Versailles is a small town outside of Paris, built around the huge castle of Louis the Fourteenth, who was King of France in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Behind the castle, deep in the green woods with reflecting pools, fountains and sculpture stretch for miles. It was a wonderful place for the girls to play.
When they grew older, the sisters were free to roam. In between lessons in reading, writing, cooking and dressmaking, Julia and Sarah wandered in the gardens of the great French palace. Along the pathways they found stone altars, hideaways, and statues of Greek gods and goddesses. They played make-believe, and they dreamed of fairies, saints, and elves. In these magical gardens, Julia's vivid imagination flourished.
In 1834, when she was nineteen, Julia moved back to India. A year later, she met Charles Hay Cameron, an Englishman. Cameron was twenty years older than Julia. A quiet man, he was a lawyer who worked to improve Indian laws. In 1838, Charles and Julia were married.
During the ten years the Camerons lived in India, they were happy. Both enjoyed the Indian culture, and they had many friends. Julia was greatly loved for her warm heart and sense of humor. With dark, sparkling eyes and a gruff voice, she was a flamboyant storyteller and a lively hostess. It was Julia's talent at winning friendships that helped her find models for her photographs years later.
In 1848, when Julia was thirty-three, Charles retired from his job, and the Camerons moved to London, England. Later, they moved to the Isle of Wight, off England's southern coast. Over the years, Julia and Charles raised twelve children. They had six of their own (five boys and one girl). They adopted five orphans of relatives and took in a beggar girl. Julia liked having a busy household. But one by one, her children grew older, got married, and moved away.
In 1863, when her husband was on a trip to India, Julia became lonely. She was also worried about money because the Camerons were in debt. To cheer her up, her daughter and son-in-law gave her a big wooden camera. With it, she thought she might take pictures to earn extra income. Photography never made Julia rich, but it brought her pleasure for the rest of her life.
Julia was forty-eight years old when she started her first experiments with the camera. Photography had been announced to the world only twenty-four years earlier, in 1839, by a Frenchman and an Englishman who had each discovered different ways of making photographic pictures. For the first time, an image of the real world could be created that was not made by hand, like a painting or drawing. Everyone was fascinated with the science and magic of photography.
Even so, not many people took pictures. Photographic chemicals were toxic. They also smelled bad, stained clothes, and turned fingernails black. In the late 1860s, photography was not considered a ladylike activity. Women were expected to spend their time overseeing their homes and families, not working with messy chemicals. But Julia was not concerned with what others thought she should or should not do. She plunged into photography with all of her energy.
First, Julia turned the glass-roofed chicken coop behind her house into a studio for taking pictures (she let all the chickens go free). Then, she changed the coal house into a darkroom. The next step was to find people to pose for her.
From the start, Julia knew she wanted to make portraits. In the 1860s, portraits of famous people were popular. These photographs were small pictures that showed a person from head to toe. The subject stood or sat in front of a painted backdrop. It was a special occasion to have a picture taken, so people got dressed up and posed with serious expressions.
Julia hated these photographs. To her, everyone in the pictures looked stiff and formal. She did not want simply to show what people looked like on the outside. She wanted her photographs to express emotion, beauty, and nobility of spirit. These were high aspirations for someone who did not yet know how to use a camera.
In the early years of photography, cameras were big and cumbersome. They did not take roll film [as they do today]. Instead photographs made pictures one at a time. The film consisted of a piece of glass, called a glass plate negative, that was placed in the back of the camera, behind the lens. The plate had been coated with a light-sensitive chemical called an emulsion. It was this emulsion that reacted to light and created the photographic image.
If the photographer did not spread the emulsion evenly on the glass plate, she would get a picture with streaks. If, by mistake, she rubbed the glass before the emulsion dried, she would smudge and ruin it. Any dust or dirt on the glass would stick and show up as spots on the final picture. It was difficult even for a professional photographer to make a good glass plate. For a beginner like Julia, sometimes photography seemed impossible. But she would not give up.
After weeks of trying, Julia made the first photograph she was happy with- a portrait of a little girl named Annie Philpot. Underneath it, Julia wrote, "Annie - my first success, January 1864." Other photographers of the time would not have called it a success, however. The picture is out of focus. Annie's hair is mussed. She is not looking at the camera. With her coat buttoned up, she looks as if she has just come in from playing outside.
But these things are precisely what Julia liked about the picture. When she first saw her portrait of Annie, she knew she had done something new and different. Annie looked energetic and alive, not stuffy and self-conscious like the people in formal portraits. Julia wanted to make more photographs like this one.
First, though, she had to figure out what she had done to make this picture so she could do the same things again. Julia thought she might not have screwed the lens tightly on the camera, and that is why her portrait of Annie was out of focus. But there were other reasons. Julia's glass plates were nine by eleven inches, the size used for landscape photography, instead of four by four and ice-half inches, the standard size for mid-nineteenth-centruy portraits. It was impossible to keep everything in focus on such a big plate. Also, with large pictures, it takes a long time to make an exposure - the photographic term for what happens when light makes an image on the film. Julia's exposures took between three and seven minutes. When models breathed, the slight movement from breathing was recorded as a blur on film.
Julia could have corrected these things, but she chose not to. Instead, she broke all the rules of photographic practice, for her vision of what a portraits should be was strong. In the 1860s, people loved photography because the camera could make a precise likeness of the subject. Good portraits were sharp and clear, and they were small, precious things. But Julia's portraits were big, and soft in focus. They were unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
With her unusual style, Julia made numerous portraits of famous people. In 1867, she photographed the chemist and royal astronomer Sir John Herschel, who had been her friend for many years. First she asked him to wash his hair and let it dry freely so that he would look natural for the picture. She moved the cameras close to him as she could so that his face would take up the entire picture. Then she asked him to look directly at the camera and to keep his eyes wide open. In the photograph, Herschel stares at us with great concentration. The overhead lighting from the glass-roofed chicken coop adds to the drama of the picture. Julia succeeded in portraying the intensity and the electric energy of this great scientist.
Julia persuaded other famous people to pose for her. She met some of her subjects through her sister Sarah who knew them from social events. Among them were the painter George Frederick Watts, the scientist Charles Darwin, and the poets Robert Browning, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, her neighbor and close friend.
For Tennyson's portrait, Julia draped a dark cloth over the poet's shoulders to cover up his everyday clothes. She believed that clothes tell too much about a person's social class and about the fashions of the time. To her, Tennyson's writings were timeless; therefore, he should be, too. She turned him on the side and placed a book in his hand. The poet looks wistful and dreamy. Tennyson liked Julia's portrait so much that he often posed for her again.
Julia worked for hours on a single portrait. When she made a print she was happy with, she rushed back to the house to show it to her husband, often dripping photography chemicals on the lawn, floor, and carpets. The smell of chemicals was everywhere. At that time, photographic prints were made by coating a piece of paper with light-sensitive chemicals, putting the paper face down on the glass plate negative, and setting the two in the sun for the exposure. At Julia's house, the frames that held the photo paper and glass plate negative together were scattered all over the yard. It was hard for members of her household to get used to the mess. But they could see how much photography meant to Julia. They could also see that there was no stopping her.
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Julia made more than five hundred photographs. Her work became well know through exhibitions in London and Paris, and she won a gold medal at an international exhibition in Berlin. Even so, some successful photographers did not take her seriously. They called her a "lady amateur," and they criticized her photographs because they were out of focus and often scratched or streaked. It is true that Julia was not a good technician. But she did not intend to make a sharp, perfect picture. It was the mood, the overall effect, she was looking for. To her, what she photographed was deeply beautiful.
The painters and writers who were Julia's friends agreed with her. They did not compare her pictures to other photographs of the time. They looked at her portraits as works of art, and they encouraged her. Many belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite painting movement, whose members painted famous scenes from literature, religion, and mythology.
Julia was influenced by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and some other photographs are similar in spirit to their paintings. Unlike her portraits of famous men, who were pictured as themselves, Julia depicted women as goddesses, saints, and heroines of great literature. In the late 1800s, women had long hair that they wore in braids and buns pinned to their heads. They only let their hair down when they went to sleep. For her photographs, Julia asked women to unpin their hair. She believed this would make them look more like the characters they were playing in her pictures.
In one image, Julia posed Alice Liddell, the girl that the story Alice in Wonderland was written for, as Pomona, the Greek goddess of the fruits of trees. Paintings of Pomona usually show her surrounded by fertile gardens, so Julia's Pomona stands against a wall covered with flowering vines. Her hair is draped over her shoulders, and she gazes directly at the camera.
One of Julia's most emotional photographs shows a profile of a woman who is wrapped in a dark cloth. As a title, she added the phrase, "Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!" (The line comes from a poems loved by Tennyson.) It is the sweeping motion of the hair and the look of longing on the model's face that bring the drama of the poem to life.
Tennyson liked these theatrical pictures so much that in 1874, he asked Julia if she would make photographs to illustrate a collection of his poems about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Julia loved the idea, and she got to work.
For this project, she chose her models based on how they looked, not on who they were. Even her parlor maids were asked to pose. She positioned her models to mimic what Tennyson had written. Her childhood days of play-acting in the gardens of Versailles had prepared her for this imaginative work.
The job, however, was tough. Julia made almost two hundred photographs in order to get twelve good pictures. In 1874,these photographs were published in Tennyson's book Idylls of the King. This was one of the last groups of photographs Julia made before she left England.
In 1875, Julia and Charles moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka, an island off the southern coast of India. After the Camerons arrived, Julia made a few photographs of Indian women carrying water bottles or sitting in outdoor gardens. But she did not photograph with the same spirit or determination as she had in England. Perhaps it was because photography chemicals of the time did not work well in the heat and humidity of Ceylon. Or maybe photography was not exciting to her once she was away from the family and friends who had posed for her in the past. Whatever the reason, Julia made only a few photographs after she had left England. Four years after she moved to Ceylon, she died, at age sixty-three. Charles died the following year.
A little over a decade later, Julia's style of photography became popular among a group of American and European photographers called the Pictorialists. They wanted to make photographs that expressed emotion, not pictures that showed in detail what something looked like. They were interested in the same things that Julia had cared about. Still, she was the pioneer. She had the imagination to make a new kind of photograph and the courage to stand by her ideals. Historians now recognize Julia Margaret Cameron as one of the great portrait photographers of the nineteenth century.