With a camera meant to amuse her in her solitude and some famous friends, Julia Margaret Cameron managed to forge a body of work focused on Victorian portraiture that is still celebrated a century and a half later.
"She was one of the greatest portraitists in photography, and one of the great portraitists in any medium," said Malcolm Daniel, curator of a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which features 35 pristine 19th-century photographs.
Cameron, who was British and died in 1879, was "eccentric in manner, spiritual in sensibility and unconventional in technique," Daniel told Reuters on Monday before the opening of the show, which runs through January 5.
"She was not really interested in the documentation of how people looked. It was about finding the inner spirit and soul of a person," said Daniel, senior curator at the Met's Department of Photographs.
As such, he added, the pioneering photographer's work has seen "waves of popularity and dismissal" for generations, with Cameron's soft focus, long-exposure works deemed variously "treacly, or celebrated as an artist."
For her part, Cameron dismissed documentary portraiture as "map-making and skeletal rendering of feature and form."
Cameron received a camera as a Christmas gift in 1863 from her daughter with the idea that "it might amuse you, mother, to try to photograph during your solitude."
With no training in art, she eschewed professional models, instead shooting friends, family, neighbors and household staff.
Her friends were not just ordinary folk - among them were the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, a neighbor on the Isle of Wight, and the Victorian scientist and mathematician Sir John Herschel, each of whom is represented by several portraits from 1865-66.
Cameron's oeuvre comprised three bodies of work: portraits of great men, such as the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, women such as nieces or maids who often posed as literary or historical figures like Sappho, and staged, costumed tableaux featuring Shakespearean, Biblical or Arthurian themes.
For the tableaux, Cameron, who shot in natural light, often looked no further than her own home, with her husband posing as King Lear or Merlin the magician. The latter was for a project request by Tennyson himself, who needed illustrations for a new edition of his tome, "Idylls of the Kings."
Another frequent subject was Alice Liddell - the muse of "Alice in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll, who posed for Cameron a dozen times in 1872 alone, including for the portrait "Pomona" which is among those in the exhibit.
More than 1,200 images survive by Cameron, who largely stepped away from photography after moving back to Ceylon in 1875.
They all have one thing in common: Cameron never appears in any of them, never once having shot a self-portrait.