Julia Margaret Cameron got her first camera in 1863, at the age of 48, and created hundreds of portraits that experimented with early photography’s flaws. Soft focuses, scratched images, and other distortions contributed to a dreamy quality. Although some of the British photographer’s work can appear a bit sentimental, such as the Victorian recreations of biblical and Shakespearean scenes, her portraits remain compelling.
In September, Bodleian Libraries tweeted that they had digitized 112 of her 19th-century photographs. In a blog post, the University of Oxford library detailed the digitization process, which dates back to the early 2000s, as well as some background on the album. The photographs were compiled as a gift for dramatist Sir Henry Taylor (the album is known as the Henry Taylor Album). Taylor was also a subject of Cameron’s art, as in a “study of King David” where the author’s long beard gives his costume crown a regal weight. Another member of her circle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, once quipped that her models, frequently family and friends, were her “victims” for all the control (and often props) she put upon them.
Yet Cameron was serious about the artistic potential of photography. In 1868, she was given two rooms at the South Kensington Museum (today’s Victoria & Albert Museum), for her studio. She stated that the ethereal softness of the images was initially “a fluke.” While there were critics of her technique — The Photographic Journal sneered that “slovenly manipulation may serve to cover want of precision in intention” — she had fans in the Pre-Raphaelites, who likewise shared her infatuation with beauty and archaic themes.
She died in 1879, and interest in her work endures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited her photography in a 2013-14 exhibition, and in 2015-16 the Victoria & Albert Museum marked the bicentenary of her birth with over 100 selections from their collections. “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
View more photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron online at Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.