“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.” – Julia Margaret Cameron
It was not until the age of 48, and after raising six children, that Cameron took up photography. Back then this was still a laborious activity, involving cumbersome apparatus, glass plates, and difficult chemical processes. Viewing commercial visiting card portraits as "vulgar, leveling, and literal," Cameron suffused her portraits of relatives or illustrious friends with an aura of piety. A scene with a sleeping child and adults became Christ's birth in Bethlehem; two women with a lily became an Annunciation. She called a girl with billowing hair, taken in profile, The Angel at the Tomb. The model, as so often, was Cameron's maid, Mary Hillier. Yet Cameron made no attempt to re-create scenes from the Holy Land historically, with the aid of props or oriental costumes. It was her unconventionally familiar, indeed intimate, treatment of her soberly dressed models that infused her idyllic images with poetry.
Over a third of Cameron's photographs are portraits of women—earnestly gazing from heavy-lidded, soulful eyes as if yearning for a land of beauty. They have the sultry melancholy of the figures of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom Cameron made a present of 40 of her pictures. And like the Pre-Raphaelites, she was fascinated by Italian Renaissance art. The titles of her pictures of women with children were themselves a pure homage to Raphael: La Madonna Adolorata, La Madonna della Ricordanza, La Madonna Aspettante. A portrait of a lady with a musical instrument was inspired by Raphael's St. Cecilia in Bologna; the portraits of women holding lilies were reminiscent of Perugino or Francia. Yet Cameron also alluded to ancient mythology: her portraits of little Freddy Gould became The Young Astyanax (1866) or The Young Endymion (1873).
In 1875, Cameron illustrated Idylls of the King and Other Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the popular Victorian poet and her sometime neighbor on the Isle of Wight. Unlike her religious subjects, she now resorted to elaborate costumes and settings to evoke the legend of King Arthur, around which Tennyson's poems revolved. Sir Lancelot in chain mail, Queen Guinevere, Vivien and Merlin stepped out to face the audience, as if on stage. As Cameron once described her credo, "My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the Real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and Beauty." Cameron also created a series of significant portraits, her sitters including the astronomer John F.W. Herschel, Henry Taylor, Thomas Carlyle, Gustave Doré, William Holman Hunt, and Charles Darwin. In a space of only 15 years she produced an extensive photographic oeuvre, of which over 1,200 images have survived.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan