New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 49 Holiday Holidays! December 18 to 31, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Victorian Romantic
Julia Margaret Cameron
R. Wayne Parsons

Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron . Source: metmuseum.org Julia Margaret Cameron, "Thomas Carlyle" 1867

Julia Margaret Cameron was a Victorian Romantic for whom art was a serious upper case experience: “My aspirations are to enable Photography and to 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. The only thing missing here is an upper case B at the end of the sentence. Reportedly the last word on her deathbed was “beauty;” history does not record if this was said in the upper or lower case. Ms. Cameron’s verbalizations about art may have little appeal to our post-modern world, but that is no justification for avoiding her photographs, which are simply drop-dead gorgeous, as a visit to the current exhibition at the Met will confirm.

Cameron was an anomaly in several ways. She was a woman at a time when women’s roles were limited to housewife and mother. She was a latecomer to photography, not becoming a practitioner until the age of 48, when she received her first camera in 1863 as a gift from family members. Her affluent upper class status gave her the time and resources needed to concentrate on her art; it also afforded her access to many of the movers and shakers of her day. Her career in photography was relatively brief, lasting approximately eleven years. And she certainly was no dilettante, as she created a large body of work at a time when photography was a demanding and time-consuming discipline – creating her own negatives by making and applying light-sensitive emulsions to glass plates, etc.

Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron . Source: metmuseum.org Julia Margaret Cameron, "Christabel" 1866

She developed and consistently applied her own style, using soft-focus imagery with directional but moderately diffuse lighting, narrow depth of field, tight cropping that usually included little more than the face and predominantly dark backgrounds (a convention that adds immediacy to the face and highlights the personality of the subject by creating the impression that it is emerging from the picture frame.) Props were almost nonexistent and mostly consisted of costume (this contrasts sharply with much other photography of the period, illustrated in this show by a photo of Don Quixote in his study by her contemporary William Lake Price, which depicts the hapless antihero surrounded by a clutter of armor and weaponry, books, a crucifix, drapery, a musical instrument, a pitcher, etc.) One side of the faces in her portraits was typically much darker than the other to the extent that the darker side often disappeared into total black. Prints are uniformly made with the seductive sepia tones of the albumen silver process in vogue in the latter 19th century.

Photo by Julia Cameron Mead . Source: metmuseum.org Julia Cameron Mead, "Alfred, Lord Tennyson" 1866

Critical reception of Cameron’s work during her lifetime was not always favorable. Other photographers dismissed her work as not up to modern technical standards, as it lacked the sharpness of detail possible with the recently invented glass plate negatives (in contrast to the slightly older paper negatives with much fuzzier imagery). But Cameron mostly ignored these voices, confident in her own ability and reinforced by more favorable reception from other artists and gate keepers with similar sensibilities. Evidence of the latter is her sale of eighty prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum within eighteen months of taking up photography – a remarkable achievement for any artist of any time.

Cameron had two photographic interests: portraiture and allegorical images based on stories from the Bible and other literature. Examples of the latter are her photographs illustrating Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the two bound volumes of which are included in the exhibition. But it is as a portraitist that her reputation is secured today, as her allegories are usually dismissed as overly sentimental Victorian excesses that do not stand the test of time – though, in fact, some of these displayed here are quite lovely. While just under half of the images in this show might fit her definition of allegorical pictures, some (such as the stunning “Sappho”) strike us as less an allegory than simply as a portrait taken in period costume; without the title we would have no clue at all to read this image as Sappho (especially since the costume is anachronistic by about 2500 years.) Others (the illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls, or her illustration based on King Lear) are more clearly meant to tell a story, even if it’s not apparent from the untitled image what story we are privy to.

Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron . Source: metmuseum.org Julia Margaret Cameron, "Déjatch Alámayou, King Theodore's Son" 1868

She photographed both notables of the day (Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, John Herschel, Joseph Joachim, etc.) as well as non-celebrities recruited from her relatives, friends, and household staff. Many of these images are simply unsurpassed in the history of photography. Her portrait of Carlyle, for example, is immediately arresting and projects a personality we would love to meet. Several beautiful images of Julia Jackson, later the mother of Virginia Woolf, are among her best-known works, and justifiably so. Apparently posing for her was not something her models looked forward to, as she was demanding, and the minutes-long exposures, during which only minimal motion was permitted, were taxing for even the most cooperative of her subjects. (Most photographers of the age aimed at total immobility and used a clamp on the back of the head to this end, but Cameron was comfortable with some motion, as it added to the soft-focus effect she sought.)

Mrs. Cameron made more than 1200 images during her short career, but we typically see only a small number of these, as publications and museums tend to concentrate on the same images repeatedly ( Herschel, Jackson, Carlyle, her niece Kate Keown and a few others), which makes us wonder how the images we often don’t see are consistent with Mrs. Cameron’s reputation as one of the preeminent portrait photographers of the nineteenth century, or, indeed, of any era of the medium’s history. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not address this question.

While thirty-two of her photographs are displayed, there is considerable “redundancy”: three images of Herschel, three of Tennyson, two of Julia Jackson, and so forth. While all of these are different exposures, their differences are often subtle, it would be more useful to the viewer to see fewer images of Herschel, for example, and more photos of other subjects. It’s not clear if this is a curatorial choice or simply because the exhibition exhausts the museum’s holdings of her work (in which case a few loans would by helpful). Some explanation of what’s going on would be appreciated.

Apparently Cameron valued her portrait and her allegorical work equally, in contrast to current opinion that largely dismisses the latter. Roughly what proportions of her work fell into these two categories? —- no attention to this question in the show, either.

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Much attention is devoted to Cameron’s interest in capturing the inner person, the spiritual side. But this is an iffy undertaking at best, as there is no more reason to think that a photograph of the exterior of the head is more revealing of the soul than an MRI of the brain. Indulgence in such fantasy makes it much too easy for the photographer and viewer alike to wallow in a morass of unverifiable speculation and inadvisable self-projection. My advice is to enjoy the images and leave the spiritualism to the spiritualists.

Julia Margaret Cameron



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