Julia Margaret Cameron: A Contemporary Photographer Stuck in the 19th Century


In 1863, at the age of forty-eight, Julia Margaret Cameron received her first camera. A mother of six children, the gift quickly spawned a hobby that turned into a life-long passion, and her approach to photography is one that still influences photographers to this day.

Not pleased with the more formal approaches to photography common to that time period, Cameron took a more contemporary approach to her work. By having her subjects move slightly while she was capturing the images and using soft focus, her work possessed a unique aesthetic, even by today’s standards. In fact, some of the photos look so much like modern-day photography it’s easy to doubt their authenticity.


Such aesthetic didn’t come without criticism though. Many contemporaries called her approach and the resulting images crude and lacking any sort of craftsmanship.

The Photographic Journal went so far as to say, “In these pictures all that is good about photography has been neglected, and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited,” following it up with, “we are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art.” This appeared in an 1864 edition of their publication.


Obviously unappreciated in her own time, it wasn’t until later that the brilliance behind her work truly came to be understood, painting a picture of someone who was far ahead of her time in taking the first steps towards contemporary photography.


As a member of an influential English family, Cameron was a religious, eccentric individual, friends with a plethora of well-known artists and writers. From Charles Darwin to Sir John Herschel, many of her subjects were names we’re still familiar with to this day.

Speaking of her work and newfound love, Cameron once said quite poetically, “from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, it [became] to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”

As to her experience, she shared the following:

“I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass.”

It was this failure and resulting experimentation in combination with her eclectic approach that drove her to create the style of imagery she did. And if the style seems to you quite reminiscent of some of today’s more contemporary work, you’re not alone.

Conceptual artists Jonathon Keats has referred to her as the “Godmother of Instagram,” before.


Cameron’s photography career spanned many decades, eventually slowing to a halt after moving to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), due to the lack of proper chemicals and water supply. It was in 1879, while in Ceylon, that she eventually passed away, with no specific cause being confirmed.

Below are just a few more photographs from her impressive portfolio.







To read up more on Julia Margaret Cameron, you can head on over to her Wikipedia page, or embark on a quick Google search. We’re fairly certain you won’t be disappointed.

(via Visual News)

Image credits: All photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron

  • Mark Brown

    Very cool. I can understand how her critics may have thought her sloppy, but her style has given us images that seem much more honest and relate-able than the usual stiff portraits of the day.

  • Douglas Clarke

    I love the softness of her images. They add a very human feeling to them. Rest asured I will definitely check out more of her work. Thank you for bringing her to our attention.

  • Julian Callan

    So good.,

  • E. M. Crawford

    She’s a favorite of mine but quintessentially 19th century. Why call her “contemporary”? Because it isn’t arch and stiff? This makes no sense to me — yes, we connect well with the subjects but if you think this is “contemporary” you need to study 19th century Romantic art a bit more thoroughly.

  • Adam Cross

    ugh, “Godmother of Instagram” what a terribly boorish observation.

  • Peter “Pots”

    Very nice portraiture, Thank you for bringing her to my attention.

  • kirby2112

    “Godmother of Instagram”. I think I’m going to be sick.

  • Anomouse

    Without her, feminist art historians would have to skip over the first 100 years of photography.

  • Blakael

    Not enough bokeh! Especially the one with the white lilies.

  • Bill

    You seem to have forgotten Imogen Cunningham (among others)

  • Karsten Hein

    The first picture isn’t by JMC but by Clementina Hawarden. Bit earlier than JMC, very good too.

  • Anomouse

    While Imogen was establishing herself as a photographer by 1927, the work that made her significant came well into photography’s second 100 years. She worked well into old age and died in 1976… kind of hard to associate her with the Julia Margaret Cameron era.

    Cameron gets a lot of attention because early female photographers were so few and far between… yet a modern photo history class will devote a significant portion of the class on JMC while ignoring many worthy male photographers. They turn her into a token whilst skirting much proficient photographers because of their gender — that’s what passes for politically-corrected history in academia.

    Stay tuned, a Francesca Woodman segment must be looming!

  • Tony Hanmer

    She was my 4x great grandmother, and I’m a photographer too. Many of her subjects had to sit still not just for a few seconds, but for a few MINUTES! (No flash…) I have several modern original prints from her glass negatives, most of which are stored at the Royal Photographic Society HQ in Bath, England.

  • Richiebuzz

    3rd image from the top presents Alice Liddel, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s muse who inspired him to publish a book under the name: Lewis Carroll.

  • Blakael

    I seriously hope whoever is reading this does not think I’m serious…

  • Greg Hobson

    The first photograph is by Cameron. It is Ellen Terry aged 16, photographed in Freshwater, Isle of White in 1864.

  • Greg Hobson

    Unfortunately, the whereabouts of Cameron’s original negatives is unknown.

  • seorasx

    “Godmother of Instagram”

    Eeek ! and an insult.
    Instagram is principally a post photo effect(s) created by others. JMC was dealing with what her camera and inherent process gave.

  • bob cooley

    I don’t think ‘contemporary’ is the most fitting descriptor, progressive (for the time) seems more fitting.

  • Richard

    Incredible discovery and post. Nice piece of history (herstory) Thanks.

  • Richard

    I agree, the term “contemporary” threw me off.

  • Andrew Kandel

    No need to worry. If there’s one thing the Internet gets it would be sarcasm.

  • Crooooooooow

    It is pretty clear the author has no idea what contemporary means in terms of art and photography otherwise he wouldn’t make such unintelligent claims about a very talented woman.

  • Ridgecity

    “The Godmother of Instagram”… If that’s not an insult to a photographer, I don’t know what it is.

  • Sid Ceaser

    Godmother of Instagram? Go home Keats, you are drunk.

  • Danie C

    The author of this article should really research Pictorialism, some of it’s other practitioners as well as how and why this particular sensibility came about in the late 19th century.