Cameron’s “very first success”

Julia Margaret Cameron :: Annie Philpot (1857-1936), Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England, January 1864.
Julia Margaret Cameron :: Annie Philpot (1857-1936), Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England, January 1864. Albumen silver print.
Annie; Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815 - 1879); January 1864; Albumen silver print; 17.9 × 14.3 cm (7 1/16 × 5 5/8 in.); 84.XZ.186.69; No Copyright - United States (http://rightsstatements.org/vocab/NoC-US/1.0/)
Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815 – 1879) :: Annie; January 1864. Albumen silver print.
Julia Margaret Cameron :: Annie / "My very first success in Photography January 1864", January 1864. Albumen silver print.
Julia Margaret Cameron :: Annie / “My very first success in Photography January 1864”, January 1864. Albumen silver print.
Getty Open Content Program

In December 1863 Julia Margaret Cameron received the gift of a wooden box camera from her only daughter, Julia, and her son-in-law Charles Norman. She was forty-eight years old, a woman whose prodigious energies had been centered on raising her six children. Now, with her daughter married and her husband and three eldest sons away on her family coffee estates in Ceylon, she found herself at a transitional moment in her life. Taking up photography at this time, she began, in her own words “to arrest all beauty that came before me.”

Cameron’s retrospective written account of her career in photography, Annals of My Glass House (penned in 1874 and published posthumously in 1889), stresses the solitary nature of her early experiments: “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.” Despite this proclamation, Cameron may have already learned the basics of camera operation and chemistry from Oscar Gustave Rejlander, with whom she shared many mutual friends, most importantly Alfred Tennyson, her neighbor on the Isle of Wight. Another likely early tutor was her brother-in-law Lord Somers, an accomplished amateur photographer who made portraits of Cameron’s family circle.

After some three weeks of experimentation in the January cold of her studio at her home in Freshwater, Cameron created this portrait of Annie Philpot (1857-1936), the daughter of a local resident. She later recalled the circumstances surrounding its creation in Annals of My Glass House: “I was in 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. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day.” Cameron carefully trimmed this particular print for presentation in an album given to Lord Overstone in 1865. It is a picture of great simplicity and grace, conspicuously divided in terms of light and dark. The out-of-focus background and deep shadows around the model’s eyes were acceptable to Cameron, indicating that from the outset her criteria for “success” were notably out of step with convention. She proudly inscribed the picture’s mount “My very first success in photography.”

Adapted from Julian Cox. Julia Margaret Cameron, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996), 10. © 1996 The J. Paul Getty Museum

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