Julia Margaret Cameron on Photography and Failing in the Dark

Julia Margaret Cameron on Photography and Failing in the Dark

Do you recognize this model? At age 9, she was the shy muse of a stammering Oxford professor named Charles Dodgson.

By age 20, she’d become a minor celebrity who’d spent much of her life in front of a camera. Here’s one more clue:

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

As you’ve probably guessed, she’s Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll (Dodgson’s pen name) to write Alice in Wonderland. She didn’t count photography an impossible thing.

But for Julia Margaret Cameron  (1815-1879), the woman who created this portrait, photography was the most wondrous invention in the world.

Who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?
~Julia Margaret Cameron

I wait, by Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia was born in Calcutta, India, to a French mother and a British father who worked for the East India Company. Her peers considered her the eccentric “ugly duckling” among six gorgeous sisters.

She spent most of her childhood in France with her grandmother. When she was twelve, French inventor Nicéphore Niépce captured the first photograph, a camera obscura image projected on a pewter plate coated with bitumen varnish.

Julia returned to India, and at age 23, married Charles Hay Cameron, a member of the Law Commission stationed in Calcutta. He was twenty years her senior. Ten years later, the government forced Charles to retire, partly because he advocated education for the children of India.

The family moved to London, where one of Julia’s beautiful sisters, Sarah Prinsep, hosted a salon for famous artists and writers. There, Julia met Alfred Lord Tennyson, who became a life-long friend.

In 1859, Julia and her husband visited the Tennysons at their home on the Isle of Wight. They fell in love with Freshwater, a village on the island, and purchased a house there. They called it Dimbola Lodge after the coffee plantation Charles had purchased in Ceylon to provide retirement income.

Charles Hay Cameron, Julia's husband (1864)
Charles Hay Cameron, Julia’s husband (1864)

Four years later, the plantation began to fail. Charles returned to Ceylon to oversee it. For her birthday that year, Julia’s daughter gave her a camera so it might “amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude.”

Julia was 48 years old. She taught herself to use the equipment and chemicals involved in collodion or wet-plate process. It required that photographic material be coated with light-sensitive silver salts, then exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes.

It was no trite hobby for a bored society matron.

Julia’s Famous Portraits

During the next decade, the camera became Julia’s muse and medium:

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.

Through her sister and Tennyson, she had met many of Victorian England’s greatest minds, including Robert Browning, Charles Darwin, and Sir John Herschel. Now they became her models, as did her pretty Freshwater neighbor, Alice Liddell.

Julia Stephen, mother of Virginia Wolf
Julia Stephen, mother of Virginia Wolf

Darwin became Julia’s first paying client and Herschel, her technical adviser. Herschel, the age’s foremost astronomer, also made several contributions to photographic science, including the use of  light-sensitive salts.

“Pray!” he would write her and “Be more cautious!”Julia replied that she “felt [her] way literally in the dark thro’ endless failures.”

Another one of Julia’s favorite subjects was her niece and namesake, Julia Prinsep, who later became Julia Stephen, mother of Virginia Woolf.

In August 1874, Tennyson commissioned her to create photos for the People’s Edition of The Idylls of the King. Although she captured two hundred images, the publisher only selected two.

Unfazed, Julia self-published a companion volume entitled Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Other Poems, with images made directly from her negatives.

She developed her unique style by accident, the result of a short lens and long exposure. It focused the center of the portrait and blurred the background. She liked the effect and reproduced it again and again.

Her contemporaries ridiculed her. The Photographic Journal, reviewing her submissions to the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1865, wrote:

Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities.

But her style influenced modern photographers and “soft focus” still dominates portrait photography.

In 1875, the Camerons moved to the plantation in Ceylon. Julia caught a chill and died there four years later. Some biographers speculate that sixteen years of inhaling photographic chemicals might have weakened her lungs and contributed to her death.

But somehow I don’t think she’d do anything different.

When she discovered her calling at age 48, she’d already raised eleven children—five of her own, five orphaned relatives, and a beautiful Irish orphan whom she employed as a model and saw married to a handsome gentleman.

Julia Margaret Cameron, photographed by her son, at LaterBloomer.com
Julia Margaret Cameron, photographed by her son

She cared for her elderly husband (who survived her by two years) and ran a busy household.

Julia Margaret Cameron also mastered an invention that didn’t exist until she was twelve. 

I find it exciting to think there might be something out there, yet to be invented, that will become the calling of another late bloomer.


Down the rabbit hole, anyone?
Have you mastered something that didn’t exist when you were born?

34 Responses

  1. So I was checking out the global stream on Triberr and it led me here. I’m a stock photographer, and as such, enjoy reading about the history of its practitioners.

    You deserve high marks for writing an interesting and well researched post. I would wager you spent more time working on this post than I have any given ten posts.

    Nicely done.

    • Debra Eve

      Thank you so much, Brian. That means a lot coming from a photographer. I really enjoyed immersing myself in the history of photography for this.

      My posts are pretty time-consuming, which is why I only publish on Sundays. On the other hand, I’m blogging to book, so I can say “Whew, another chapter down.” Take care!

    • Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

      I’ve written four novels as blogs to book, but it is much easier to do with fiction, though I do still research some.

  2. Lee J Tyler
    | Reply

    I love this article, and love that your beautiful header is in your email itself along with the full article. (Is it mailchimp that allows you to do that or is it a silly question?) I still click through as I love your site. I was amazed at how much Virginia Woolf’s mother looks like her, or the other way around. I wonder what her history/story was? Thank you for inspiring me and teaching me at the same time!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks so much, Lee. Julia made hundreds of photos of her niece (who became Virginia Woolf’s mother) and I think Virginia wrote a introduction to a book of Julia’s photos. It’s a story I’d like to explore more, too, but I try to keep myself under 1000 words 🙂

      Getting Mailchimp to send out posts like this is very easy. If you’d like a quick explanation, just email me at elle.b@laterbloomer.com.

  3. I’m reading the excerpt that your site suggested I try. Sometimes the ads work. 🙂

    I’ve just read the first bit about authors over 40. I’m 45 and hated writing until Jan 2, 2010. I accidentally became a writer after just one post that people seemed to like. External validation can change ones course.

    I’m going to go back to reading the excerpt. I just had to stop and tell you how good the writing is and how excited I am about the rest of it.

    • Debra Eve

      Yay! Like Julia, sometimes I think I’m just blogging in the dark. But also like Julia, I intend to keep doing it no matter what. Thanks for the external validation, Brian. I know what you mean 🙂 I have to jump offline after this comment, but I’ll check your site out tonight.

  4. I just bought Later Bloomers. I read the excerpt for a bit and then realized I was going to buy it anyway, so why not now. I’m already thinking of the glowing review I’m going to write…unless it has a terrible ending where you say you hate bacon, or something.

    • Debra Eve

      I have some very strong opinions, Brian, but I try to keep religion and politics out of my blog. Just inspiration here. But don’t worry, I love bacon 🙂

  5. Lindsay
    | Reply

    Although I am older than the internet, I was an early adopter of social media (in the mid 1990s). Another great story. I look forward to your blogs, always.

    • Debra Eve

      I didn’t even know there was social media in the 1990s, Lindsay! Thanks for your kind words. I might have to do a whole post on the subject of what wasn’t there when we were born.

  6. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    The programming languages I use daily in my job didn’t exist when I was born; nor did the Internet! I love how you work in some fascinating history into this inspiring story – thanks!

    • Debra Eve

      It is amazing, isn’t it? How many of us were born before the advent of personal computers, yet have mastered them or even make a living from them. I took a programming class and decided it wasn’t for me, so I totally admire you, Jennette.

  7. Becky Green Aaronson
    | Reply

    Yet another inspiring post! It’s especially interesting to me with my connection to photography. Thanks for sharing this with us and reminding us there are infinite possibilities still ahead!

    PS: Your post on Alex Haley lit a fire in me to read Roots. What a treat. I’ll be blogging about that soon (and linking back to you, of course)!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Becky! I appreciate that coming from a photographer I admire so much. It is astonishing, even in our life time, how much photography has evolved. Looking forward to the Haley post 🙂

  8. David Stevens
    | Reply

    What imagination she had with the photography…and patience. Must have been a very difficult art to master in those days however her ‘results’ were outstanding. Thankyou Debra.
    be good to yourself

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, David. Photography has been my hobby for years. I absolutely adore my digital Nikon, but I’ve actually taken a darkroom class. I can even imagine what was involved in the 19th century. These photos are such a testament to her determination and creativity.

  9. Marianne
    | Reply

    Loved this article, Debra! Wonderful story and wonderful writing! Very interesting, indeed. I think I have some catching up to do so I’ll go and see what I’ve missed from you. Thanks for the post!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks so much, Marianne! So glad you enjoyed it.

  10. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra … what a thrill to meet someone who could honestly be called a pioneer in her field. Julia is among the few women who have blazed the path for all of us to follow. Thanks so much for this 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Florence. And she became a pioneer at age 48, which I find thrilling!

  11. Hi Debra,

    I’ve got a lot of reading to catch up on here. Can’t believe how many amazing stories there are of late bloomers here that I didn’t know. It’s an inspiration to all of us.

    Particularly loved this story, so many well known people and evocative photos.

    The final question is brilliant too. Look at us all here mastering the Internet which never existed when we were born:) I love that although we’re of a certain age we’re staying on the ball with social media, a new phenomenon that many young people haven’t embraced.

    • Debra Eve

      I remember mag cards, Annabel (gasp!). Sometimes all the new technology and social media feels like going down the rabbit hole to me, but I love it and have vowed to keep up. Julia is a true role model there, since photography was so complicated at the time she embraced it. Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Florence Fois
    | Reply

    Debra, so many of us might think the computer qualifies as I am certain they did not exist when I was born. Sadly, I do not consider point and click as a mastery of the damn thing.

    This was a wonder post for me on so many levels. I grew up with a photographer. In an old b&w of me in a crib, one can see his make-shift darkroom. I have been in love with and fascinated by photography since. I have not made it my vocation, rather capturing images in print are my gift … but it skipped over his four and one of mine and settled with my daughter. Her photographs are often on my blog, the Brooklyn Bridge and other pics on my front page are hers.

    About the true danger of the old method of developing, there is a direct connection to so many deaths, cancer, lung failure to name two. A dear friend of our whose husband became a world-class photographer died of Hodgkins due to exposure to the chemicals in developing.

    This is yet another wonderful example of the later bloomer, and the courage of some to see a dream long before the world catches up to them. Thanks 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      You’re welcome! I still have a soft spot for film, Florence, although I shoot in digital exclusively these days and enjoy the flexibility. I love your header photo, so cool your daughter took it. You should post that photo of you in the crib on your blog some time!

  13. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I love the photographic style from the period — whether it’s unique to her or just an artifact of the time. The people photographed to me look like bronze statues — perhaps that’s because of the regal bearing of the particular subjects. Thanks for another great bio.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you for stopping by, Chris. Julia specialized in mythic tableaux, but her portraits are what stand the test of time, I think. They look so contemporary and vital. Hard to imagine they were ridiculed in her day.

  14. Laura Best
    | Reply

    Oh wow! I’m not sure what to say, just that her photos were totally remarkable and I absolutely enjoyed reading Julia’s story!

  15. Patricia
    | Reply


    I posted a comment yesterday, but I’m not seeing it.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Hey Patricia, I saw your other comment. It came in on my most recent post about Lilian Braun. Thanks so much!

  16. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Debra, I’ve dropped by to visit you every once in a while over the last five years. Your site keeps getting better and better, and your concept is so clear. Love it!

    This story inspires me today during a “stuck” time in my own writing. I think I need to channel a little of Alice’s energy, hard work, and creativity.

  17. Lindsay Edmunds
    | Reply

    I agree: I don’t think Julia Cameron would have done anything differently. In my opinion, her achievements rank higher than those of her famous niece. She must have been extraordinary.
    Love those photos! Thank you for another brilliant post.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, Lindsay! I’m so enamored with her work. There’s been a resurgence of interest in her photos, but not her life. Virginia Woolf and a few academics have written about her, but no one has undertaken a recent biography. If I had more time…

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