Julia Margaret Cameron and The Kiss of Peace

Roughly 1700 words, a superficial biography of an early Artistic Photographer. As a class we saw fifteen works (originals and not behind glass!) and then had to write a paper. We had been given some leading questions about controversy and were asked to include a reaction to the artist and the work. I meant to post this just after I wrote it, but you know…



Julia Margaret (Pattle) Cameron (1815–1879) was one of seven daughters born in Calcutta to a high-ranking official of the British East India Company and his French aristocratic wife. Cameron and her sisters were sent as children to France to be raised and educated by their maternal grandmother. Once she reached marriageable age, Cameron returned to Calcutta. However, she became ill and traveled to Cape Town for recuperation, where she met John Herschel in 1835, and shortly thereafter met her future husband Charles, a lawyer and administrator 20 years her senior [Weaver 1984].

The couple married in 1838 and lived in Calcutta with their family until Mr Cameron retired in 1848, after which they moved to London. Kensington, to be precise, near Cameron’s sister Sara Prinsep, whose house was a focal point for artists and writers. Notably, the Symbolist painter George Frederic Watts lived at the Prinsep home, and Alfred Tennyson was a regular visitor.

In 1860 the Camerons moved to the Isle of Wight, taking residence next to the Tennysons. Watts lived nearby. In 1863 Julia was given a camera, and for the next eleven years produced the bulk of her work, stopping shortly after the couple moved to Ceylon where she apparently had difficulty obtaining darkroom supplies. She died there in 1878.

Photography practice

The story that her children gave her a camera to pacify her while [her husband] was away on an earlier trip is another of those many anecdotes which aim to rob her of her dignity as a woman and artist, and have taken the place of criticism of her work. From the time when Sir John Herschel had told her of his photographic researches of the late eighteen-thirties, she had been interested in the new medium. The large camera and the cumbersome wet-plate process were not toys for a neurotic woman to be kept busy with. Almost fifty, she was a mature woman of considerable learning and with a passionate interest in literature, drama, and art when she took up photography in a serious way in 1863 [Weaver 1984, p. 14].

Mike Weaver recasts Cameron’s narrative from “bored upper-middle class wife given something to do” to “a well-connected woman is the agent of her artistic expression.” In fact, it appears that Cameron started printing before she started photographing. Cameron gave an album to her sister Virginia in December 1863 with “photographs of my own printing.” [Ford 2003, p. 39] Owning a camera was an extension of her existing practice, and not merely a pastime.

As a working artist, Cameron wanted to earn money with her photography: she gave portraits and albums to influential friends and others of high social standing, she copyrighted her work as she made it, and she arranged to have prints made for sale (with reduced prices for artists). She also entered and won competitions, and exhibited at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) during her lifetime.1 For all of her efforts, however, she did not recoup her costs [Wolf 1998, p. 213].

Artistic expression

Cameron’s work can be broadly cast into two categories: portraits of Great Men and Fine Women, and depictions of Allegory, whether as intimate portraits or broadly-staged tableaux vivants. Some of the images fall into more than one category, but the women tended to be the “embodiment of [Cameron’s] ideas about femininity” [Wolf 1998, p. 41] and were not usually named (unlike the men, who were almost always identified).2

[S]taged photographs depicting idealised or mythical scenes became common from the 1850s onwards…. Arguably, through mythologising the past, the Pre-Raphaelites offered a conservative response to modernity. Cameron likewise staged mythical scenes, referencing the seasonal and the cyclical, using costumes and titles to emphasise the poetic. Continuity rather than change was emphasised, and there is no hint of the modern metropolis in her work. [Wells 2009, page 266 ff.]

In addition to the thematic work exemplified by the tableaux vivants, Cameron was influenced by and had a lesson from David Wilkie Wynfield, a painter and photographer known “to adjust the camera slightly out of focus” [M. H. Stephen Smith, quoted in Ford 2003, p 36].

Cameron’s portraits are known for their soft focus and frame-filling faces. The equipment she used was partly responsible: “it would have been virtually impossible with such a lens to get a close-up portrait in focus on the 11" × 9" plates…. [When] she changed her camera for one that took even bigger negatives… [it] made the problem even worse.” [Ford 2003, p. 42] This technical “flaw” could have been mitigated by changing gear if she had wanted to “improve” the images.

This is the reason her work was considered controversial when she exhibited it. Not for its subject matter, which fit perfectly well with Victorian tastes, but because she refused to make technically perfect photographs.

A contemporary review in the The Photographic Journal remarks:

Mrs Cameron exhibits her series of out of focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality but at the expense of all other photographic qualities. A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal in whatever branch of art he might practise. In these pictures all that is good in photography has been neglected and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited. [Royal 1865, p. 196]

This criticism provoked a response from Cameron that it was “too manifestly unjust for me to attend to,” and made her “all the more determined” to make the photographs she wanted to make. According to Wolf, Cameron “was an artist with a strong personal vision” who was “belittled” by photographers but praised by “painters and poets.” [Wolf 1998, p. 33–35]

Cameron’s connection to painters, her stated desire “to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art” [Cox 2003, p. 41], and her use of painterly composition (chiaroscuro, simplified backgrounds, an emphasis on emotion) suggests that she should be categorized as a Pictorialist. She might not have liked that label, since she and Henry Peach Robinson3 disapproved of each other [Weaver 1984, p. 83], but there is no doubt that she believed that Photography was an Art and not mere Craft.

The Kiss of Peace

The work we viewed at UMMA, The Kiss of Peace4, depicts a tender moment between a woman and a girl. The woman is kissing the forehead of the girl, their hair is loose and they are draped in nondescript wraps. The frame is very tight, showing only their heads and shoulders, and there are no props nor environmental indicators. There is no indication of the subjects’ relationship, but it could be a mother–child or a sisterly moment. The fact that the two models are unrelated [Cox 2003, p. 458] is irrelevant. I presume that the educated Victorians that Cameron hoped to sell this image to had some idea of the context—a Biblical reference and early Christian practice.

Looking for The Kiss of Peace in Cox and Ford’s catalogue raisonné [Cox 2003], I was struck by how it looks more like Cameron’s portraits than her tableaux. There aren’t any props, not even a flower. This means that the viewer has nothing to look at other than the two models, and by doing so is confronted by their calm, almost resigned, embrace. This is an emotional piece, which for me skirts sentimentality but doesn’t cross the line into oversentimental. I think this is because it doesn’t have any of the symbols that I would immediately regard as mawkish: no flowers, no birds, no white dresses, no rosy cheeks. The composition and lack of context give it a sense of timelessness, which by all accounts is what Cameron was trying to do.

One of the things that drew me to discuss Cameron’s work is the fact that she started photographing late in her life, although she had aesthetic interests before then. I see a small parallel with my own experience—though without the comfortable living and famous friends—I came back to photography in my middle age. I also appreciate her insistence on photographing people close-up. I’ve found in my own portraiture that I gravitate toward head-and-shoulders images, if not closer, preferring to see the person’s face as much as possible.

More important to me, now that I have read so much about her, is learning about her determination to make the work she wanted to make. Cameron listened to people who could teach her the things she wanted to know, and ignored the ones who tried to “teach” her things that didn’t matter to her. She was confident in her vision, and absolutely sure that photography was a High Art.

Perhaps most inspiring to me, as I am trying to finish a very hands-on project: Cameron wanted people to know that “her work was made very consciously and by an artist rather than a machine” [Cox 2003, p. 54]. I recognize this impulse, and celebrate it.

Works Cited

  • Cox 2003: Cox, Julian, and Colin Ford. 2003. Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
  • Ford 2003: Ford, Colin. 2003. Julia Margaret Cameron: A Critical Biography. Getty Publications.
  • Royal 1865: Great Britain, Royal Photographic Society of. 1865. The Photographic Journal. v. 9. (Google version.)
  • Weaver 1984: Weaver, Mike. 1984. Julia Margaret Cameron, 1815-1879. Boston: Little, Brown; Company.
  • Wells 2009: Wells, Liz. 2009. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Wolf 1998: Wolf, Sylvia, Stephanie Lipscomb, Debra N Mancoff, and Phyllis Rose. 1998. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.
  1. Daniel, Malcolm. “Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/camr/hd_camr.htm (October 2004) (accessed 2015-11-08) 

  2. Most of the men were photographed because of their accomplishments. That photo Iago though… that’s pure sensuality. 

  3. Henry Peach Robinson’s influential essay “Pictorial Effect in Photography, Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers” was first published in 1868, and was released in at least four editions to 1897 before it was revived in 1971. 

  4. “The Kiss of Peace; Julia Cameron.” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/musart/x-1975-sl-1.63/19751.63.jpg. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed: November 12, 2015. The odd thing about this particular version of the work: it is flipped compared to the versions printed in the various reference books I consulted. The work is listed in _Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs as number 1129.