First Lady of the Black Fingers: Julia Margaret Cameron

It is not my wish to insult anyone by including this post, but as a teacher I felt it important to include material about the key players in photographic history. As an amateur art lover, an artist with whom I made early contact helped me by giving me a reading list and a list of relevant artists. That gave me a good foundation and it is my intent to do the same for readers who may not have considered the interesting historical context. About one-sixth of Cameron’s output involved children and many are girls, but perhaps not as many as it might at first appear.

Julia Margaret Cameron (née Pattle) (1815-1879) was born in Calcutta, India of a respectable English family. As her family was well-connected, she was raised to perform the kind of duties expected of a woman of her class and upon her marriage to Charles Hay Cameron in 1838, became a devoted mother of six. Cameron got a late start in photography for two reasons; the techniques were still in their infancy and she had not recognized the need for artistic expression until the children were out of the house and she wanted something to help pass the time. Sir John Herschel, an astronomer and friend informed her of this new technology and she must have at first experimented by borrowing the cameras of others before receiving her own as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law Julia and Charles Norman in 1863. This was an unusual hobby for a woman as it was a technical and messy process using wet collodion and such photographers were noted for their black fingers from handling the chemicals. She was self-taught and worked on her craft in England and then in Ceylon where she and her husband relocated in 1875. Apart from Herschel, she was friends or acquaintances with a number of noted figures including Alfred Tennyson and his wife who were neighbors for a time. Running a business was becoming a respectable practice for the upper classes in Victorian England and photographers were making their fortunes producing postcards from their images. At that time photography demanded a lot of time and money, and though Cameron wanted to supplement her family’s income with her work, that ambition never reached fruition.

Fortunately for us and for posterity, there was a resurgence of interest in Cameron’s work in the 1970s and efforts to track down her surviving photographs began, resulting in the book Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs by Julian Cox and Colin Ford in 2003. 1225 images are known to have survived and are included in catalog form in this book. She was a prolific correspondent and was one of the most written-about women of her time so there is ample documentation about her life and artistry. She classified her work into three general groups: 1) Portraits, 2) Madonna Groups and 3) Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect. No matter what the theme, Cameron regarded her goal as achieving a work of beauty. Her earliest efforts did make use of the children in her life, mainly members of her extended family and those of her closest friends. Her first exhibition was in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum. Her accomplishments are even more impressive when one considers the 3 to 7 minute exposure time required. Cameron made efforts to minimize the production time, but it must still have been a formidable challenge to get children to sit still that long. The exposure times also made the modern convention of smiling for photographs out of the question, as such a tense expression could not be maintained.  Although Cameron was a perfectionist when it came to composition and effect, she was harshly criticized for her sloppy technique.  Early photography was a sensitive process; chemicals had to be applied evenly and the photographer had to be careful handling the plate to avoid dust, scratches and other marks.  To preserve the authenticity of the artist’s work, such marks were not cleaned up for this post.

Cameron regarded her early work with Annie Philpot her first official success and this image is listed as number one in the catalog.

julia-margaret-cameron-annie-1864

Julia Margaret Cameron – Annie (1864)

Many of her works had a sacred theme and a number of images had identical compositions and titles as she experimented with photographic effects and different versions were needed for friends and interested museums curators. I always felt that the sitters had an unusually devout expression in her images. Several of these were called Madonna with Two Children (Cat. #18).

Julia Margaret Cameron – (Untitled) (1864)

Julia Margaret Cameron – (Untitled) (1864)

This ensemble shows some of her favorite models: Mary Hillier (one of her servants), Elizabeth Keown, Mary Ryan, Alice Keown and Mary Kelloway (Cat. #147).

Julia Margaret Cameron – Lilies and Pearls (1864-5)

Julia Margaret Cameron – Lilies and Pearls (1864-5)

Cameron was fascinated with how the quality of a child’s skin comes out in photographs (Cat. #41).

Julia Margaret Cameron – Gentleness (1864)

Julia Margaret Cameron – Gentleness (1864)

It wasn’t that Cameron was especially religious, but children of that time were regarded as pristine and wholesome and that lent well to cherubic or angelic themes. Wings could be used to produce angels and cupids alike (Cat. #889).

Julia Margaret Cameron – (Untitled) (1872)

Julia Margaret Cameron – (Untitled) (1872)

An image like this may seem a bit startling with children, but the severity of the effect might have been exaggerated by the long exposure and as children were regarded as uncorrupted, the viewer of that period might imbue such images with deeper spiritual meaning than could be achieved with adults (Cat. #858).

Julia Margaret Cameron – The Turtle Doves (1864)

Julia Margaret Cameron – The Turtle Doves (1864)

Cameron and Charles Dodgson were well acquainted and collaborated from time to time. This piece resembles his work with Beatrice or Evelyn Hatch. After seeing some of Cameron’s angels, Dodgson probably requested a “cleaner” image of the girl without the accoutrement of wings. To me, Cameron’s title suggests an eerie double meaning. The more obvious is that this piece was a special request made to order, but there is also the suggestion that such an ardent desire for this image was unseemly and precipitates a child’s fall from grace (Cat. #896).

Julia Margaret Cameron – An Angel unwinged by your desire (1873)

Julia Margaret Cameron – An Angel unwinged by your desire (1873)

Many times while reviewing the catalog, I was surprised that a particular image was in fact a little boy. Her soft focus and motifs naturally emphasize the feminine qualities and it was fashionable for boys in upper-class families to wear their hair long to bring out their youthful beauty. The sitter in this image was Stephen Powys (Cat. #1013).

Julia Margaret Cameron – A Lovely Sketch (1873)

Julia Margaret Cameron – A Lovely Sketch (1873)

The parallels between Cameron’s and Sally Mann’s work is unmistakable. Both women, apart from being mothers, had obsessive personalities when pursuing their art. After Immediate Family and What Remains, Mann became fascinated with homemade cameras and old photographic techniques with long exposures and, like Cameron, likes the feel of handling the chemicals and other materials required in the process. This is demonstrated in the excellent documentary of Mann called What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann.

6 thoughts on “First Lady of the Black Fingers: Julia Margaret Cameron

  1. Thank you so much for the post! I just came across it, and found it interesting, and very informative. I was wondering, however – is the collaboration between Cameron and Carroll for “An Angel unwinged by your desire” confirmed or your own speculation? I’ve done some brief research, and I can’t seem to find the connection elsewhere online, but the suggestion is fascinating…

    • Thank you for your comment and your keen observation. The theory about ‘Angel Unwinged’ is indeed my speculation. By the time I had written this post, I had read much of the work by Morton Norton Cohen on Dodgson (Carroll) and given the descriptions of how he had his work perfectionistically enhanced and reproduced, it is probable that he made standing requests of Cameron if the right kind of model should come along. As two of the leading innovative amateur photographers of their age, they certainly knew each other and were part of some of the same social circles. When I first read the title and saw the image, this idea hit me like a ton of bricks. He would not have liked the accessory angel wings and Cameron’s title feels somewhat like a scolding double entendre. Even given the different use of language of the period, the exact use of words is awkward. I believe she meant to convey that the removal of the wings was a request but also that Dodgson’s specific wishes symbolically diminished the innocence of the model. I have since read Douglas Nickel’s book and, recently, Franco Maria Ricci’s–including Gernsheim’s accounts–as well and I still feel that my instincts were dead on. -Ron

      • Thanks so much for your reply! I’m actually writing about this exact subject right now, and exactly where Dodgson’s interests fall in the context of the Victorian cult of the child. I’ve read a little about the relationship between Dodgson and Julia Margaret Cameron, but nothing that goes any deeper than the fact that they knew each other, and that Dodgson didn’t care much for JMC’s imprecise photographic effects. (Any suggestions on where to look for more information, or other examples of titles which hint at collaboration?) But you’re definitely right – whereas most Victorian child portraitists safely desexualized their young nude models with wings or halos, Dodgson’s nudes are specifically raw (though often painted into idealized backdrops). (Which is also not to say that Dodgson never used props – many of his photographs of children involve some sort of theatrical roleplay). Thanks again!

        • The only other place I can think of to look for information about the relationship between Dodgson and Cameron was ‘A Victorian Album: Julia Margaret Cameron and Her Circle’ edited by Graham Ovenden. Inside, there is an introduction by Lord David Cecil that is very insightful regarding Cameron’s personality and lends credence to my idea. About her exuberant attempts to ingratiate herself with people, Cecil wrote, “This was her effect [the ability to win them over] on most people. The only recorded exceptions were Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll [C.L. Dodgson]…Mrs. Cameron was possessed of a personality in a high degree overwhelming. She was also eccentric…it is not odd that Lear and Carroll found her company a strain.”
          Cameron was an ambitious woman, so her tendency to ingratiate herself with people she regarded as important probably came off as phony to someone with the sensitivity of Dodgson. I have experienced the feeling many times myself observing people trying to be overly jovial in a social setting or having an incessant preternatural cheerfulness in even the most mundane circumstances. Cameron also probably offended Dodgson’s sense of propriety and decorum with her brash eccentricity. And additionally, they had conflicting styles of photography–Dodgson’s perfectionism against Cameron’s experimentation and delight in the happy accident (which also describes the style of Sally Mann). Even given all this, it is quite logical to assume that Cameron was eager to do Dodgson a favor and as an opportunist, he obliged by giving her a frank description of his desire. It seems unlikely that any collaboration went any deeper than that and at most only a handful of images may have been attempted. In fact, given Dodgson’s perfectionism, what you see here may have been one of her “failures” that he did not accept into his own collection–those having been destroyed upon his death along with any corresponding journal references.
          I don’t know how sophisticated a writing project you are engaged in, but if you think it worth the effort, I would try contacting Colin Ford or one of his associates who have researched Cameron more extensively (probably having read all of her extant correspondence). If you succeed, I would appreciate an introduction myself. Thank you again for your thoughtful commentary. -Ron

  2. I just came across this post and was thrilled to find it. I have been a fan of Julia Margaret Cameron for many years and your article is full of information, and a few images, that were unknown to me. Thank you for the effort to educate people about her and her work.

    • I’m glad you are pleased. I try to provide information I would like to have seen readily available when I look for interesting artists. I have not had time to follow up yet, but I was informed by an acquaintance of Colin Ford’s that since the publication of the book mentioned in this post, more than 100 additional Cameron pieces have been discovered and logged. I do not yet know if and how these images may become more publicly available. Thank you again for your kind comments. -Ron

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