A Late Starter Who Lost Focus

For an interiors photographer, focus is king. The same was true of portrait photographers until around 1864, when 48-year-old empty-nester and mother-of-six Julia Margaret Cameron took the blurry picture above of Annie Philpott (far left), the daughter of a family friend, with the sliding box camera she received as a Christmas gift from her daughter and son-in-law.

The other two pictures are my attempts at recreating Cameron’s style: an homage to the young Annie (middle picture) and on the far right is a man who would look good in any era of history, with his fine Roman nose, high forehead, and perfectly proportioned ears (ok, yes, it’s me).

The portrait of young Annie Philpott changed Cameron’s life. ‘This was my first success. I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture,’ she later recounted.

At the age of 48, a poster woman for late starters everywhere, Cameron ventured into the male-dominated world of photography with zest and passion, and today she is considered one of the most important portraitists of the 19th century.

Born in 1815 in Calcutta, India into a wealthy family, Cameron and her husband, and their six children, moved to England in 1848, where they enjoyed London’s bustling art scene, and eventually settled on the Isle of Wight in 1860, next door to the poet Alfred Tennyson. Only a few years later, she received that sliding box camera as a gift and soon this amateur photographer was selling prints and holding exhibitions. 

In the picture of young Annie, you can see the blueprint of her later work which made her famous: the close-up, the intimacy, the lack of sharpness. ‘What is focus?’ she said. ‘And who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?’ 

Her out-of-focus images were ‘a fluke’, she said. ‘That is to say that when focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.’

This approach did not endear her to the photography establishment which decried her sloppy technique, but  won her many admirers in the art world, particularly amongst the pre-Raphaelites. 

Success came quickly for Cameron, aided by her preternatural gifts for self marketing, and soon this social-media-star-before-her-time was exhibiting at home and abroad while earning a steady income from her prints. 

Her subjects included many famous faces, most of them personal friends, including Charles Darwin, Lord Alfred Tennyson, John Herschel, and the actress Ellen Terry, cementing Cameron as one of the world’s first celebrity photographers. 

All the images below are Cameron’s, including the strikingly modern photograph below of her great niece Virginia Wolf playing cricket with her sister Vanessa (demonstrating an impressively modern forward defense), with its subjects blurred in the foreground – it’s like an outtake from a cellphone.