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The Idylls of the Village or The Idols of the Village, Oscar Gustaf Rejlander possibly in collaboration with Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1863, albumen print. Museum no. PH.261-1982 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


In her lifetime, Julia Margaret Cameron was criticised for her unconventional techniques, but also celebrated for the beauty of her compositions and her conviction that photography was an art form. Cameron was 48 when she received a camera as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law. She soon transformed her property to accommodate her new pursuit:
‘I turned my coal-house into my dark room, and a glazed fowl-house I had given to my children became my glass house!’

Kate Dore, Oscar Gustaf Rejlander possibly in collaboration with Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1862, albumen print.  Museum no. PH.258-1982 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Early Practice 

Although she portrayed the acquisition of a camera as the start of her photographic career, Cameron had compiled albums and even printed photographs before that. On one occasion she printed one of O.G. Rejlander’s negatives, surrounding it with ferns to form a photogram frame around the portrait. A hybrid work that combines an image made in a camera with a camera-less technique, it shows Cameron’s experimental nature and provides a glimpse of her photographic practice before she acquired a camera.

Arduous Work

When Cameron did take up photography in earnest, it was arduous and exacting work that involved potentially hazardous materials. The wooden camera, which sat on a tripod, was large and cumbersome. She used the most common process at the time, producing albumen prints from wet collodion glass negatives. The process required a glass plate (approximately 12 x 10 inch) to be coated with photosensitive chemicals in a darkroom and exposed in the camera when still damp. The glass negative was then returned to the darkroom to be developed, washed and varnished. Prints were made by placing the negative directly on to sensitised photographic paper and exposing it to sunlight. Each step of the process offered ample room for eror: the fragile glass plate had to be perfectly clean to start with and kept free from dust throughout; it needed to be evenly coated and submerged at various stages; the chemical solutions had to be correctly and freshly prepared.

Annie, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864, albumen print. Museum no. 214-1969 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Cameron devoted herself to the medium with energy and ambition. Within a month of receiving the camera she made the photograph she called her ‘first success’, a portrait of Annie Philpot, the daughter of a family staying in the Isle of Wight. Cameron later wrote of her excitement:

‘I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture.’

From her ‘first success’ she moved on quickly to photographing family and friends. These early portraits reveal how she experimented with soft focus, dramatic lighting and close-up compositions, features that would become her signature style.

Beatrice, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, albumen print. Museum no. 944-1913 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


From Life Not Enlarged

In the summer of 1865 Cameron began using a larger camera, which held a 15 ¬x 12 inch glass negative. By early in the following year she seems to have switched to the larger format altogether. With her new camera, Cameron initiated a series of large-scale, close-up heads that fulfilled her photographic vision. She saw them as a rejection of ‘mere conventional topographic photography – map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form’ in favour of a less precise but more emotionally penetrating kind of portraiture. She wrote to Henry Cole that she intended this new series to

‘electrify you with delight and startle the world’.

Iolande and Floss, Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1864, albumen print. 
Museum no. 44774 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Her mistakes were her successes

Writing in MacMillan’s Magazine in 1866, critic Coventry Patmore declared that Cameron was ‘the first person who had the wit to see her mistakes were her successes, and henceforward to make her portraits systematically out of focus.’  In addition to pioneering soft focus, Cameron included in her photographs imperfections that other photographers would have rejected as technical flaws such as streaks, swirls and even fingerprints.

Although criticised at the time as evidence of ‘slovenly’ technique, these traces of the artist’s hand in Cameron’s prints can now be appreciated for their modernity.

It impossible to know the extent to which Cameron embraced such irregularities or whether she merely tolerated them. Cameron also sought to improve her negatives, and did so with the same frankness with which she seemed to accept the other blemishes. She scratched into her negatives, printed from broken or damaged ones and occasionally used multiple negatives to form a single picture.

Some of the photographs she sold to the South Kensington Museum included such traces of her process, suggesting that she found them acceptable at the very least.

The Dream, Julia Margaret Cameron, April 1969, albumen print.  
Museum no. 937-1913 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


But she also wrote to Henry Cole complaining about a ‘cruel calamity’ of cracks that had ruined some of her most ‘precious negatives’, demonstrating that she was in fact discerning and constantly striving to improve.  Cameron blamed her ‘fatally perishable’ photographic chemicals for the cracks, while members of the Photographic Society suspected the damp climate of the Isle of Wight. Today’s theory is that failure to sufficiently wash the negatives after fixing them caused the problem, which is visible in The Dream.

The V&A holds a group of 67 Cameron photographs that once belonged to her friend and mentor, the artist G. F. Watts. Watts wrote to Cameron:

‘Please do not send me valuable mounted copies…send me any…defective unmounted impressions, I shall be able to judge just as well & shall be just as much charmed with success & shall not feel that I am taking money from you.’

Mary Hillier, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864-6, albumen print. Museum
 no. PH.346-1981 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


His request for ‘defective unmounted impressions’ explains why this group includes numerous examples of Cameron at her most experimental: figures stand out starkly against black backgrounds caused by missing collodion, faces swim in swirling chemical mists, or are framed by the lines of a cracked negative. Many are unique, which suggests that Cameron was not fully satisfied with them.

Viewed alongside prints the South Kensington Museum acquired from Cameron, the photographs she sent to Watts shed light on Cameron’s working process and the photographs that did meet her standards. They can be understood as unfinished sketches that she sent to Watts for comment as part of her process. The very ‘defectiveness’ of these prints shows Cameron to be a more discerning artist than assumed by critics both in her own time and after.

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