by Nicole Wolverton
There is a belief in some cultures that a camera can steal your soul as it captures your image. One needs only look at the photographs taken by Julia Margaret Cameron to wonder if this might be true after all.
Take, for instance, Cameron’s portraits of Alice Liddell, the woman who—as a child—inspired Alice in Wonderland. Liddell posed for Cameron a dozen times in 1872, the results of which seem to expose a visceral pain. In one, “Pomona,” Cameron had Liddell pose similarly to a photograph taken of her as a child by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Dodgson’s photo is far less evocative, but seeing the images together highlights Cameron’s skill (and Dodgson’s possibly inappropriate relationship with the then pre-teen Liddell, but that’s another story).
Cameron was not always a photographer. She was not an ingénue in the arts. Rather, she was born into an aristocratic family of British and French origin and did what an upper class woman was supposed to do during the Victorian era—she travelled, she found herself an appropriate husband, and she had children. She entertained a wide circle of celebrity friends, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, William Michael Rossetti, and Charles Darwin. Her great-niece was Virginia Woolf. It was only when Cameron’s daughter and son-in-law gave her a camera for her 48th birthday in 1863 that Cameron earned notoriety of her own.
Cameras in 1863 were not dainty, streamlined pieces of equipment, and processing film was not easy. Cameron made albumen-silver prints from wet collodion glass plate negatives developed in a makeshift darkroom in a coal store. Her photographs are known for their out-of-focus, dreamlike quality, and this made her the subject of ridicule in much of the photographic community, since the ideal at the time was clarity.
For a late bloomer, and one whose work was considered a failure by her peers, Cameron’s determination to be seen as an artist is part of what makes her work endure—she registered her photographs with the copyright office and kept detailed photography records. She also sold many photographs, most notably to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (where she also maintained a studio for a time). Further, her portraits serve as an important part of the historical record: her circle of friends often posed for her, leaving behind what in some cases are the only photographs of notable figures—scientist and photographer Sir John Herschel, for example.
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” Cameron wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”