Throughout the many years that she lived and worked as a photographic artist at Dimbola, her home in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, England, Julia Margaret Cameron was friend and neighbor to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. During a brief artistic career that began late in her life, Cameron’s access to Tennyson’s visitors at his Farringford home allowed her to craft numerous portraits of Victorian celebrities, including astronomer John Herschel, naturalist Charles Darwin, Pre-Raphaelite artist George Frederick Watts, as well as others too numerous to list here. These were gifted in albums to friends and family, exhibited through the British Royal Photographic Society, and sold in both Europe and America.
While the achievement of classification among high art was no easy task for a Victorian photographer, much less for someone who aspired to become a great photographic artist; Cameron was determined. As legend would have it, at her home down the lane from Tennyson, she transformed her coal house into a dark room and her glass fowl house into a studio. With the help of her household staff, Cameron began her career as a photographic artist whose deeply romantic attachments to her craft were revealed from the beginning, as she wrote, “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied. Its difficulty enhanced the value of the pursuit.”
Cameron, intent on achieving artistic greatness through photographic art, knew that the distinction between the commercial photographer and the photographic artist was critical. High and low art stratification was particularly relevant toward her own efforts to align herself with those subjects, both male and female, who belonged to an elite British culture and society of the Victorian era. As Tennyson’s friend and neighbor, her access to these particular subjects increased over time, and as mentioned in his 1866 review of Cameron’s photographs for Macmillan’s Magazine, by Coventry Patmore, “She is evidently endowed with an unusual amount of artistic tact; she knows a beautiful head when she sees it—a very rare faculty; and her position in literary and aristocratic society gives her the pick of the most beautiful and intellectual heads in the world.”
To this end, Cameron employed the use of a labor intensive technique that she adjusted to her own distinct and careful specifications. Consistently, she filled her photographic compositions with the head of her subject, draped them in luxurious fabric, bathed them in sunlight that descended from above, and often carefully adjusted her lens both deliberately and slightly out of focus. This was followed by the development process, that she performed herself, and which was essential toward the pursuit of her individually crafted fine art photographic portraits.
The wet plate collodion process for albumen photographic prints was exceedingly difficult, and it entailed complex and, at times, dangerous methods and chemicals. Often cited, early Cameron biographer, Helmut Gernsheim describes at length, the extreme challenges in coating the plate with iodized collodion, bought ready-made, which called for very skillful manipulation. Cameron had to balance a 15” X 12” glass plate between the thumb and first two fingers of one hand, while slowly pouring on collodion with the other as the plate was then tilted gently in all directions to form an even coating.
Black stains on Cameron’s hands and clothing are detailed by Gernsheim and several other Cameron biographers who write that she also carelessly and frequently dripped chemicals on the dining room table linens, while enthusiastically showing her husband, Charles, a newly completed work that demonstrated her insistence on achieving high art. Those black stains from silver nitrate on clothing and hands earned photography the title of the “black art.” This appears fitting, given together with the fact that completing a photographic negative was intensive work that was accomplished almost entirely in darkness, with the necessity of keeping the surface of the sensitive plate moist during the exposure, which meant that it had to be made immediately after sensitizing and developed rapidly.
The necessity for accuracy was also important since any slight variation in coating the glass or any mark or scratch on the surface of the glass could ruin the exposure. Cameron had to process her large glass negatives very quickly, pouring developing solution over them, before completing the fixing, rinsing, and drying process. This was followed by varnishing, which was necessary to protect them before positive images could be made. The negative had to be heated in front of a fire uniformly and, as Cameron once wrote, “as hot as the back of the hand will bear,” with the photographer pouring on and draining off the varnish as rapidly and as precisely as possible.
While her contemporaries once criticized Cameron’s artistic technique that included her now famous use of soft focus for her photographic portrait compositions, Cameron’s production of some 3,000 of these large glass negatives — with each successful development a unique and individual work by the artist herself during what was a very brief artistic career beginning in 1864 at the age of 48, until her death in 1879 — was a monumental achievement for a woman artist in the Victorian era. It is, however, an achievement rife with accounts of Cameron’s nature and character, through the critical lens of others, both during and long after the end of her career — even to this day.
Text from, Framed in Constructed New England Regional Literary Identity: Julia Margaret Cameron Photographic Portraits of Famous Men and Fair Women, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request.