Part I: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879)
In the beginning, we put our faith in cameras as instruments that told the truth. Sharp focus was our authority. But then came Julia Margaret Cameron who said the human spirit is in soft focus.
Look at this picture. What is the man doing? What does the woman’s arm mean? Is this a still from a movie — or too early for that? Julia Margaret Cameron would push the new form of photography from documentary into dreaming. Thirty years before anyone imagined movies, she predicted that look — it is rugged and dark and sexual. There is an undertow of violence.
When she made this picture, her first year in photography, she was a forty-eight-year-old matron from Calcutta, married to a Scottish judge who wanted to retire to Ceylon. She had raised eleven children, six of her own, four from relatives, and one she’d met when the girl was begging on Putney Heath.
Julia was trying desperately to stay in England. Then her daughter gave her a camera, she said it might amuse her mother while her husband was away. Within months it was as if Julia Margaret Cameron had been plucked from a heath and put into a life of purpose. But her enthusiasm for her pictures was in conflict with other established photographers who mocked her as an amateur.
She started in 1863, photography was hugely popular in England. It was a time when the investments in colonizing foreign lands were paying off richly. A middle class developed, and the upper class felt even surer that history had meant progress and prosperity. People had postcards made of their own image to show off their clothes and their class.
If only Julia Margaret Cameron had made these carte-de-visites she would have been richly rewarded. But she was too rebellious. Even self-destructive. What did she expect being a woman and from India?
When Julia was three, she and her sisters were taken by their grandmother from Calcutta to live with relatives in Versailles, leaving their mother to have three more girls and send them to France, too. The idea was that the seven girls would be educated to manage European households with servants which would make them eligible to the British gentlemen working for the East India Company in Calcutta. Their father worked there. He had been a gentleman whose ancestors were born in England, but while the girls were away, he became a drunk known as “the biggest liar in India.” That’s family lore passed down for generations.
Once their grandmother decided the girls were old enough, she’d send them back to Calcutta to find a husband. The young women were insecure about their lack of book learning but what six of the sisters had was beauty, and they quickly became famous and they made “advantageous” marriages to wellborn Englishmen. And then they moved to London. But Julia was not fair of face and, it is said, she suffered a series of illnesses, or was she sent to be governess to her sister and her new baby at the aptly named Cape of Good Hope in South Africa? That was where Europeans in India went to convalesce (and meet a new crop of Englishmen?) Either way, her prospects were worrying.
But it was in 1836, that Julia met the astronomer and one of the inventors in the process of photography, John Herschel (1792–1871), who would become her lifelong friend. She also met her future husband Charles Hay Cameron (1795–1880) twenty years her senior, a respected judge in England who had been sent to India the year before to investigate poverty for the government and who had contracted malaria which would nag at him the rest of his life.
The first ten years of their marriage in Calcutta would be animated by his becoming the advisor in drawing up the British Penal Code in India, and he served on the Council of Education for Bengal where he advocated for the education of children. Her role was as official hostess for Government House where she was considered “a very important person by all in India.” She had their first four children. Her last year there she became known in London for having raised funds for victims of the Irish potato famine. Herschel was writing her about developments in the invention of photography but there was not a glimmer of her future on anyone’s mind, yet.
Charles Cameron, at fifty-three, was ready to retire to a solitary life on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) where he had been buying property. But Julia was still only thirty-three and eager to be with her sisters in England. All the husbands agreed these sisters were happiest when together.
What was the good of any social success if your sisters weren’t there to admire and envy you for it? And what social success was there to be had in Ceylon where there were one and-a-half million people to the twenty-eight million in England?!
Under protest, Charles went back to England with Julia and the children. He held onto the land in Ceylon hoping to make coffee plantations there. Coffee was big business and he convinced patrons in England that he could borrow against his future earnings which kept Julia and their growing brood in and around London from 1848 to 1860. They had two more children. Julia was in the habit of moving by then, she’d done it for the family three times in a dozen years and on a whim, when she visited her friend, the Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his house at the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, she took the place next door.
“Gradually, the cottages took color and shape under Mrs. Cameron’s hands. A little theater was built where the young people acted. On fine nights they traipsed up to the Tennysons’ and danced; if it were stormy, and Mrs. Cameron preferred the storm to the calm, she paced the beach and sent for Tennyson to come and pace by her side. The color of the clothes she wore, the glitter and hospitality of the household she ruled, reminded visitors of the East.”
She was described like this: “Certainly Julia Margaret Cameron had grown up an imperious woman; but she was without her sisters’ beauty…She seemed herself to epitomize all the qualities of a remarkable family, presenting them in double distilled form. She doubled the generosity of the most generous of the sisters, and the impulsiveness of the most impulsive. If they were enthusiastic, she was so twice over; if they were persuasive, she was invincible. She had remarkably fine eyes, that flashed like her sayings, and grew soft and tender if she was moved.”
Mrs. Tennyson was having a baby on the island, and it was Cameron who took the arduous 100-mile journey in the dark night from Freshwater to row a boat across The Solent to catch the train to London and then the horse-drawn cab to fetch the doctor whose door she had to pound on and convince to come back with her. We begin to see her reckless perseverance and why Mrs. Tennyson and her husband, among her many friends, might esteem her and be a little afraid of her, too.
Julia was borrowing for the family. Charles for the plantations to which four of their five sons had been dispatched so far. Three years later, in 1863, there was a crisis in the crop in Ceylon. For Christmas the Cameron’s daughter Julia gave her mother the camera. Either it was meant as a means by which to earn or something to take with her to occupy her in Ceylon should she have to move there. A friend of Charles’ and an important collector, Lord Overstone, loaned her six thousand pounds which she used for household expenses and to start taking pictures.
Her challenges were great and she had to teach herself to use the equipment. She showed her early work at the Royal Photographic Society and in their newsletter they wrote: “Of Mrs Cameron, we are sorry to say, we have very little hope…. for her bad pictorial composition, and generally, palpable distortion arising from misuse of the lens.”
The harder she was pushed, the closer she held to the enemy techniques and even called them her style. The camera lens was small for her nine-by-twelve-inch negative plates so the edges of her pictures would always be less sharp than the rest. Also, the lens was only sharp in its center, she could aim that where she liked but everything else around it would be less distinct. She had a fixed aperture of 3.6 and a focal length of 12 inches, a shallow depth of field, meaning not much could have been in focus in a portrait.
Photographers used a brace to keep the sitters from moving but she would not. And there was shake in a lot of her images. Also, when printing she sometimes turned her plates back to front, so the thickness of the glass added another layer of softness to the final print.
Anybody can buy a camera but not anybody can learn to use it properly and so from the beginning of photography there has been an emphasis on the technology such that it can become more important than the results. The authority in photography has always been in the camera and the sharp focus. But by sticking on that critics were missing what was radical about her photographs. And right now, a hundred-and-fifty years later, we need to look at those pictures to see that AI does not search for the soul. Technology doesn’t care, it doesn’t ask what is alive or dead, it can’t lose, a camera or a computer is our tool.
Consider this, perhaps, her most famous photograph.
Cameron called this “Sadness” because Ellen was seventeen and had been wed to the painter George Frederic Watts who was forty-seven. This picture is a few months later, and the marriage will not last a year. Was it Terry or Cameron who pulled the night dress down around her shoulders? Who made her hair look like she’d just gotten out of bed? Was she told to play with her necklace? To place her head mournfully against the wall? It’s possible that there was someone else in the room.
Ellen Terry’s husband, Frederic Watts, fell in love painting her as a heroine in his pre-Raphaelite tableaux. And you have to wonder if he didn’t direct the taking of this photograph. It was unlike anything Cameron would make again. But Terry was by then Watts’ seasoned muse, and she intuits the compact a subject makes with the camera and a director. Remarkably, she creates her own world so that we can imagine we are looking at someone who is unaware she is being watched. And yet we know she wants to give this secret part of herself to us. And we believe we know what she is thinking, and that we are thinking it, too.
Cameron showed Watts every print she made, seeking his advice. He urged her to bring the sitters closer to the lens, pushing her to make more dramatic readings of them, as was done in paintings. She understood when Watts told her to leave the pictures in their “natural” state after printing. And with his confidence she would not paint over light leaks or scratches that had occurred on the glass plates like any other photographer.
Cameron believed everyone had an inner life that should be aired out like a heavenly cloud. She was a devout Catholic, but I wonder, for all that has been written about her faith, if she hadn’t turned to another belief: photography.
This female Christ was Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece, and she became her favorite sitter. The saint was something Cameron may have brought out in Julia Jackson. The picture turned out to be a kind of prophesy for her when later, married with three children, her husband died, and ever after she devoted herself to the deathbeds of relatives and friends. Did this photograph show her that possibility was in her?
Not everyone was complaining about Cameron’s photographic techniques. Indeed, that first year, she did a portrait of the founder of the Kensington Museum Henry Cole and he purchased sixty-three prints and later opened two rooms to her in his new Victoria and Albert Museum for her to use as a portrait studio. She took the poet Robert Browning there. And the historian Thomas Carlyle. She heard the novelist Victor Hugo loved the new invention of photography and sent him twenty-nine prints about which he was over the moon.
John Herschel who coined the word “photography” had been writing Cameron and keeping her up on developments in photography since they met in 1836. So when she started taking pictures, she conferred with him about chemical mixes (one of his discoveries was fixing the image for an unlimited number of copies) and in response to his praise of her “life sized heads” she bested his, “I hope they will cause wonder and delight, astonish the public and reveal more the mystery of this heaven born art — they lose nothing in beauty and gain much in power.”
Cameron became known for her portraits of famous men in Victorian society. So many visited Freshwater. No one consented readily but she got enough to help legitimize her outré practices.
The violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, the art critic Sir John Taylor sat for her often, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the founder of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin himself.
“When I have had such men before my camera,” she wrote, “my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them…” When she asked the great thinkers to wash their hair before they sat for her and not to comb it did she intend to bring out the wildness in them? There’s a little nutty professor about Herschel in his image. The hair accentuates his eyes which seem worried about what she might be making of him. And yet, was the picture harmed by the soft focus or is it a great work of art?
The softness was certainly intentional. In her pamphlet about her working methods, Annals of My Glass House, she wrote: “My first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke.” But as she progressed “when focusing and when coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.”
Those who sat for her remembered that period when they had to be perfectly still during exposure as lasting seven to fifteen minutes! But the wet collodion method she used had the advantage of a quicker shutter speed, down to two to twenty seconds or so. It was hard to sit still that long but not impossible. Children remembered being lectured about the critical importance of not moving and ruining her exposure. She had had times when she made a hundred exposures to get one that worked!
So you can imagine how strong an impression she felt she had to make and that may have been why they perhaps conflated the exposure time with the time she left them alone waiting in the renovated-fowl-house that was her studio while she went back and forth to the converted-coal-house that was her darkroom. There could have been seven to fifteen minutes around the taking of the picture while they sat there anxious without instruction.
Tennyson sat for Cameron many times. When Longfellow came to stay with his fellow poet, he pressed his guest to sit for a portrait next door. Tennyson left the author of Hiawatha saying, “You will have to do whatever she tells you. I’ll come back soon and see what’s left of you.”
Cameron sat Longfellow down in the darkened glass house and wrapped him in the black cloth. Then she left him there while she went next door to ready the fifteen-by-twelve-inch glass plate for his picture. (She had a larger camera by 1867.) First she polished the plate clean. Then, pinching its corners between fingertips, she poured a puddle of collodion mixture into the middle and tilt the glass until it was coated smoothly, poured off the extra, then put the glass in a bath of silver nitrate and water. Sensitizing her plate took three to five minutes in complete darkness. She’d have to count it out. Then put the glass in a wooden holder, one side was fixed, the other moved: the dark slide.
Then she brought the closed box to the coop where Longfellow was waiting. She was wafting in vapors of cyanide, ether, and silver nitrate. Maybe he hadn’t noticed before that chemicals had splashed on her dress. Her fingers were black from the mixing. She’d slide the plate into the camera holder, and maybe she had to adjust the distance at which he sat from the lens as she focused, then she pulled up the dark slide and opened the lens cap to expose the damp glass to light, count, then get the plate back to the coal house, pour developer over it smoothly rocking again, fifteen seconds, more chance for streaks in the silver, then pour water over evenly.
Longfellow was next door worrying, shivering or sweating depending on the season but not daring to move. She’s immersing the plate now in potassium-cyanide, fixing the image, breathing in acetic acid, then watching waiting, you never knew how long, until the liquid became clear, the unexposed silver salts were eliminated. Then lots of water to clean the plate. That’s where she’d get in trouble. She had no running water in the coal house, and she often didn’t use enough, so her pictures crackled later.
I don’t know why she thought that look was any worse than the other issues, but her mind was her own, no one could doubt that then or now. And perhaps genius comes to a person as their essence, in her case, a compression of grand gestures made over fifty years to keep from being left behind.
When her husband Charles first came to the house in Freshwater, he stood at the bedroom window and complained that the grass he might imagine walking on was covered over with a vegetable garden. That afternoon she had tools delivered and placed out of view. Overnight she had workers dig up the garden and lay grass quietly so as not to wake him. There’s rage in excessive kindness, surely an intelligent man like Charles felt that. And this picture she took of him has the extremes of light and shadow that will come a century later in film noir which was created to express both sides of the human frame.
A man might be afraid to open his mouth to a wife like Julia. Don’t forget, they’re battling over whether to move countries or not. And for twelve years of the standstill, and twelve years of her being a photographer in England, he paces in the rooms of that house and on the grass she lay for him, and reads and reads and reads. She says he loves her work, and she describes herself running into the house to show him every print, dripping on the dining table. But in 1872, he buys 2,000 more acres in Ceylon, making him the largest landowner in the country! Not a man planning to stay in England.
And when he sat for her, especially in costume to illustrate Tennyson’s book Idylls of the King and other Poems in 1875, Mary Hillier complained that Charles giggled in the middle of exposures, ruining them. There was already a best seller of Idylls in print. It is said that Tennyson asked Cameron to illustrate a new edition but it is truer to the relationship that she pressured him, saying, “It is immortality to me to be bound up with you.” He didn’t pay her though there were 12,000 copies printed.
This seems to have been the beginning of the end of Julia Margaret Cameron’s fight to stay in England. When the book was published there were only three small pictures by her and one was a woodcut. She said it had taken enormous energy and expense — 245 exposures to each one she could use. Tennyson encouraged her to put out her own edition.
She printed two thousand copies of a fifteen by twelve sized book — twenty-four life sized prints in two volumes. But she must not have had the rights to the poems because she had to print excerpts with “words by Tennyson.” She sold the books for three guineas a piece, but had to pay a guinea a picture just to get them copyrighted. It would have been hard not to lose money on the project. She wrote Cole at the museum that for all of her investment and her many sales through the London dealers P&D Colgnaghi, and her prizes in Art Fairs in Berlin, she hadn’t cleared a hundred pounds in twelve years of work.
John Herschel died in 1871 and then her daughter Julia died giving birth in 1872. Perhaps that explains the destructive force she put into Idylls — how much she must have spent on that project, and still she wouldn’t take commissions. Darwin was one of the rare few who did pay and was so pleased with the picture Cameron took of him that he asked her to take one of his wife. Cameron refused. In fact, she never took pictures of any of the wives of the men she worshipped. Nor of her sisters. How could she find their inner spirits without them letting down their hair, but asking them to do that would compromise their hard earned places in society. Cameron was boxed in by her ideals.
She commissioned the carpentry for two coffins, she had her correspondence burned and sailed with Charles for Ceylon. Apparently, she wrote disparagingly of the people there. I wouldn’t be surprised. She was miserable. She’d escaped Calcutta and made it in London and then was exiled. She found a way to say what she was feeling in one last great image: just look at the girl — angry and bewildered — she seems to be saying, ‘Do I have to take this?!’
Cameron got pneumonia in those last ten days in 1879, or so it was said. I think she had a broken heart and lungs full of toxic chemical fumes that have killed many practitioners of darkroom photography. She had no idea her work would live. Just last week Julia Margaret Cameron: Arresting Beauty was published by V & A curators Lisa Springer and Marta Weiss. Their title was taken from Cameron’s oft quoted line: “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me, and at length that longing has been satisfied.”
The battle was over. Charles died eighteen months after Julia.
Virginia Woolf never met her great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron. But the pictures of her favorite model, Julia Jackson, hung on the walls of the houses Woolf inhabited all her life. Jackson was Woolf’s mother and so Cameron had a huge impact on the writer. That story is in Part II.
 Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry, Hogarth press, 1924
 Julia Margaret Cameron: the complete photographs, by Paul Cox, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2003, p.14
 Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019, p.133
 Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry, Hogarth press, 1924
 George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life, by Mrs. Watts, Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1904, p.205
 In Focus: Julia Margaret Cameron, Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Weston Naef, General Editor, Los Angeles, 1996, p. 112
 Julia Margaret Cameron: Woolf, Cameron and Fry, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2016, p. 62