Happy birthday, Julia Margaret Cameron!

Since its invention in the mid 19th century, photography has been at the forefront of progressive art making traditions—so its presence in The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 is no surprise. By the 1890s, photography was a half-century old and its supporters vociferously claimed it to be an independent art form, advocating for the idea of "art photography." Today we celebrate the birthday of Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the greatest photographers from this period and whose work is currently on display in The Cult of Beauty at the Legion of Honor (closing this Sunday, June 17).

Portrait of a Woman

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815–1879). Portrait of a Woman (Louise Beatrice de Fonblanque), 1868. Albumen silver print from wet-collodion-on-glass negative mounted to a heavier sheet. Museum purchase, Mrs. Milton S. Latham Fund. 1992.138

Utterly Victorian, and every inch a woman of her class—which was bourgeois and upwardly mobile—Julia Margaret Cameron was nonetheless a person of unexpected contradictions.

A firebrand of energy, Cameron took up photography at the age of 48 (in the midst of raising her six children) and marched bravely into the awkward intricacies of photography, with its cumbersome cameras, large, unwieldy glass plates, and precarious developing processes. Over the course of some 14 years, she created one of the most distinctive and memorable bodies of work in the history of the medium.

I Follow

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815–1879). Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! Portrait of Mary Hillier, 1867. Carbon print from copy negative. V&A: 15-1939

With the full force of her considerable will, Cameron set out to create photographs of beauty and high moral purpose. In pursuit of her ambitious goals, Cameron’s photographs were as unconventional as the techniques she employed to achieve them. In typically lush language she pronounced, “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.”

After the Elgin Marbles

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815–1879). After the Manner of the Elgin Marbles, 1867. Albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative. V&A: E.2745–1990

Cameron’s photographs were revolutionary for their time and, more than 150 years later, their beauty and power is as strong as ever. Happy birthday, Mrs. Cameron!

Celebrate the life and work of this fascinating photographer in The Cult of Beauty, which closes this Sunday, June 17! Avoid the weekend crowds and receive a $4 discount on one weekday adult ticket with the code LegionSave4. (Cannot be combined with any other offers; not valid on previously purchased tickets.)