Portfolio: Julia Margaret Cameron

Today regarded as one of the most important and experimental photographers of the 19th century, the portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron's approach to her craft was much criticised during her lifetime. Her images – often intense close-ups – broke the established rules of a medium that was only just emerging into a fully fledged art form.

"She didn't mind if her shots were a bit out of focus," says Marta Weiss, curator of the new Photographs Gallery at London's V&A. "Rather, she was adept at using long exposures, soft focus and atmospheric lighting conditions to create powerful portraits."

The result is a hypnotic, almost dream-like quality to many of her pieces, though the frankness of her gaze pierces through the theatricality.

Even her more conventional profile portraits bear her trademark close-crop. Rather than looking straight at the camera, as was convention, for instance, Alfred, Lord Tennyson gazes outwards, the sharpened features around his eyes imparting a sense of gravitas.

A selection of Cameron's work is showing as part of a new permanent Photographs Gallery at the V&A, London SW7 ( vam.ac.uk), from 25 October