Julia Margaret Cameron, Isle of Wight’s Victorian Era Celebrity Photographer

In this digital age, when it takes but a second to take a photograph and freeze a moment of time, it’s hard to remember that this wasn’t always the case.

In the early days of photography, taking a single photograph could take minutes, if not hours. It involved a  having subjects stay motionless while the photographer huddled under a black cover of an enormous camera, manually adjusting the lens to get the right amount of light through. And even before the subject was posed,  photographers who used the ‘wet collodion process’ for preparing the photographic plate had to handle powerful chemicals, many of which had potentially life-threatening side-effects.

I’d forgotten all this until a recent visit to the Isle of Wight where I chanced upon Dimbola Museum, the restored home of the Victorian era photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Julia only became a photographer by chance, at the age of 48, after her daughter gave her a camera for Christmas thinking it might just cheer her up. It not only cheered her up, it turned Julia into possibly the world’s very first celebrity photographer.

 She was, you could say, in the right place at the right time. With Queen Victoria and Albert in residence at Osborne House, the Isle of Wight was one of the most fashionable places to live, attracting thinkers, writers, artists, and scientists like a magnet.

And Julia was in the thick of it, photographing them all, whether they liked it or not, including Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, the superstar of the Victorian age, who was her next door neighbor. Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, John Keats, Robert Browning, actress Ellen Terry, and Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s ’Alice in Wonderland’) were just a few of the visitors that Julia captured on camera.

But instead of just taking a straight forward portrait, Julia insisted on staging her subjects in many diverse and creative ways, fading and blurring images, often dressing them up in ways that illustrated classical themes and subjects from Tennyson’s poems. It caused some criticism in the photographic establishment of the time, but still her work won her a ‘gold medal’ in Berlin and in 1867 she was awarded an ‘honourable mention’ at the Paris Exposition, no mean feat in the male dominated profession.

Wandering around Dimbola , looking at the photographs of all the famous people that Julia photographed, offers a fascinating glimpse of a bygone era.

But I’d have to say my favorite is the photograph of astronomer and scientist John Herschel, a long time friend of Julia’s who helped introduce her to the new science of photography.

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