Julia Margaret Cameron & Questioning Beauty in Victorian Photography

Julia Margaret Cameron, A Study, 1865-66.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Julia Margaret Cameron, detail of A Study, 1865-66.
important questions.

A photographer who emphasized ambiguity in a medium known for precision, Cameron’s work continues to raise important questions.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty, 1866.

To the modern eye, Cameron’s photographs may appear ghost-like; the intentional fuzziness gives her work a sense of eerie liveliness that also conveys its inherent dualities.

 

Julia Margaret Cameron’s early critics were concerned with beauty—the beauty of her sitters, her sensitivity in capturing it, her own physical charm, and, of course, where she failed to meet certain aesthetic ideals. When, in 1926, Bloomsbury Group-celebrities Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry wrote the first earnest appraisal of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography, Fry remarked, “Beauty was a serious matter to Mrs. Cameron and her beautiful sitters.” Woolf too defined Cameron by this trait, partially in contrast to her Victorian setting: “it was from her mother, presumably, that she inherited her love of beauty and her distaste for the cold and formal conventions of English society.” Woolf even claimed that, at the end of Cameron’s life, she lay observing a starry sky, when she “breathed the one word, ‘Beautiful,’ and so died.”

Woolf and Fry’s short volume is called Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women. Like the above statements, the title could be read and accepted as an of-its-time neutral or positive judgment of Cameron’s work. Yet Woolf, astute as she was, may have been probing at the gendered dialogue that surrounded Cameron and her work by playing with the notion of “fair women” and beauty itself.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, 1867.

Dr. Victoria Olsen, Cameron’s biographer and author of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron & Victorian Photography, wonders aloud in an interview with Art & Object, “[With] that title, is Woolf being a little bit wry or sarcastic? Is she poking at the idea that that’s all Cameron’s doing? Or is she buying into the idea that these are beautiful women and famed and important men?”

Julia Margaret Cameron (née Pattle), now acknowledged to be one of the most important early photographers, has always sat at the uncomfortable and uncertain intersection of art, technology, and beauty. She was born in Calcutta in 1815 to Adeline de l’Etang, who came from French nobility (and was of both French and Bengali descent), and James Pattle, who worked for the British East India Company. They belonged to what Olsen calls “an elite class of British civil servants who lived like aristocrats in a colonized land.” Cameron was one of seven sisters, all of whom were educated in the bourgeois manner—i.e. with an emphasis on social skills, though Julia Margaret was certainly well-read—and became known for their beauty, style, and wit.

In 1836, Cameron indirectly made progress towards her future career. While recovering from an illness in South Africa, she met John Herschel, an astronomer and photographer, and Charles Hay Cameron, her future husband.

After their initial meeting, she and Herschel exchanged letters for years, in which Herschel detailed his experiments in photography. It was not until 1863, when Cameron received a camera as a gift from her daughter, Julia, that she began her practice. By then she was a mother of six, living with her family in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight. Her husband was away in Ceylon and her children were either at school or had married and left the house. With the camera, Julia added a note, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.”

Though she had kept up correspondence with Herschel, Cameron had to learn by doing. She later wrote, “I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass.” Cameron reflected that she worked “fruitlessly but not hopelessly,” adapting the farm’s chicken coop into a studio and the coal house into a darkroom. As Cameron became comfortable with the medium, she remained motivated by her desire to “arrest all beauty.” She wrote, “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardor,” adding, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigor.”

Julia Margaret Cameron, A Study, 1865-66.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Julia Margaret Cameron, A Study, 1865-66.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel, April 1867.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel, April 1867.

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, 1874. 
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, 1874. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Vivien and Merlin, 1874. 
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Vivien and Merlin, 1874. 

In January 1864, Cameron finally produced a photograph that she titled My First Success: a close portrait of Annie Philpot, the young daughter of a family staying nearby. Philpot peers ambiguously and hazily beyond the frame, her hair looks ruffled by the wind. The image rings with Cameron’s touch; the portrait has the out-of-focus, soft animation that would come to define her work, from her intimate portraits to her more allegorical, theatrical images. For the next decade and a half, Cameron worked intensely and professionally to exhibit, publish, and promote her work, and she honed her style, posing her friends and family as literary and religious figures that bring out themes of spirituality, maternity, eroticism, innocence, and virtue.

To the modern eye, Cameron’s photographs may appear ghost-like; the intentional fuzziness gives her work a sense of eerie liveliness that also conveys its inherent dualities. This spectral touch, conveying the presence of life and movement, was uncommon in early photography. Olsen writes in her book that this quality, “improved the illusion of lifelikness in an art always associated with death, an art Cameron desperately wanted to associate with immortality.”

To contemporaries, Cameron’s out-of-focus style could sometimes seem amateurish or “slovenly,” as one critic grumbled. Olsen allows for the possibility that these comments could have been subjective, aesthetic preferences, but explains that, “at that moment, the field of photography was trying to carve out a distinctive niche as an art and as a science. Photographers wanted to be seen as very technical, accomplished, and objective.” Cameron blurred those boundaries, just as she blurred her domestic, social world and fine art. Olsen situates this as another core tension, that Cameron did not separate “high culture” from culture in a more everyday, anthropological sense.

In many ways, Cameron’s work is caught between worlds: life and death, science and art, fine art and domesticity. And that is, again, where beauty comes in.

In many ways, Cameron’s work is caught between worlds: life and death, science and art, fine art and domesticity (not that any of these are true dichotomies). And that is, again, where beauty comes in.

As Olsen explains, scholars have defined culture in the Victorian period as “a separate domain that could be humanizing and could counteract the turn toward a kind of mechanical ugliness in England in that period.” Culture was moralizing, an antidote to the pressures of Industrial England. And, while “culture” was a male province, “beauty” indicated a separate, healing quality associated with women.

If beauty is the thread that connects Julia Margaret Cameron’s work, by her own recollections and others’, it is not without complication. And yet, this layering of beauty’s meanings—and the potential ironies of its usage—seems fitting for a photographer who emphasized ambiguity in a medium known for precision. Cameron thus left a certain power with the beholder, to contemplate beauty by their own subjective, era-defined interpretation.

About the Author

Sarah Bochicchio

Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.

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