Despite discovering photography late in life, Julia Margaret Cameron became the very first celebrity photographer and arguably also the first to treat photography as an art form rather than a science.
Cameron was born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta in 1815 where her father was an official with the East India Company. Her mother was French and her early education took place in France.
She returned to India but in 1836 was sent to South Africa to recover from illness and there she met the astronomer Sir John Herschel who was surveying the skies of the southern hemisphere. He first introduced her to photography and they remained lifelong friends.
And while in South Africa she met her future husband Charles Hay Cameron who was twenty years her senior. They had five children together and also raised five young relatives as well as adopting an Irish girl Mary Ryan.
Charles Cameron retired in 1848 and the family moved first to London and then to the Isle of Wight where they bought a house they named Dimbola Lodge after the family’s estate in Ceylon.
In 1863 Cameron was given a camera by her daughter as a 48th birthday present which prompted her career as a photographer and within a year she had become a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland.
Most photographers of the time treated their work as a science and a means of capturing reality whereas Cameron used soft focus and other techniques to create works of art. Her critics considered her work slovenly and bad photography but there was far greater interest from the artists in the pre-Raphaelite community.
She sold or gave photographs to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) and in 1868 she was given two rooms there to use as a portrait studio and so became the museum’s first artist-in-residence.
Cameron photographed the famous, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, actress Ellen Terry and poet and dramatist Sir Henry Taylor as well as artistic compositions such as The Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere seen on the right.
The Camerons moved to their estate in Ceylon in 1875 and she continued her photography mostly featuring local people. She became ill and died there in 1879 at the age of sixty-three.
Cameron’s photographic career was a short one and her work was not fully appreciated at the time. However, her techniques were to influence modern portrait photography. Below is a short introduction to her work.