Queen Victoria had been on the throne for a quarter of a century when, Julia Margaret Cameron got her first camera and began to make pictures in 1863. It was the same year that the renowned mathematician Charles Dodgson—now known as Lewis Carroll—was writing “Alice in Wonderland.” In the United States, a bloody Civil War was raging, and in Paris the painter Edouard Manet had just exhibited a scandalous painting of a naked woman picnicking on the grass with clothed gentlemen.
It’s important to envision that world of a century-and-a-half ago when looking at the photographs Cameron made. Otherwise you might imagine this early photographer was a proto-hippie or even the spiritual godmother of Cindy Sherman. Cameron’s gauzy portraits of girls with flowing hair will evoke the 1960s for anyone who lived through that decade, while her penchant for dressing up models to stage narrative tableaux suggests a perspective much like those Baby Boomer artists of the Pictures Generation.
In fact, these associations are largely misleading. Cameron, who was born in 1815 in Calcutta and died in Ceylon in 1875, spent her most productive years in Great Britain, where she was part of intellectual circles that included many of the greatest figures of the day.
She may have been born and raised in “the colony,” as the Anglos called India, but she was a true upper-class British lady—cultivated, determined and ambitious. When Cameron embarked on the new path of photography, she was also the middle-aged mother of six children and a deeply religious person. She was a Victorian through-and-through.
Any similarities Cameron’s photography bears to the art of the 1960s is due to the popularity of the Romantic, Pre-Raphaelite sensibility, which infused the Victorian age and later experienced a short-lived rebirth in 1960s America. Parallels between her staged Biblical and literary scenes and the knowing tableaux of the Pictures Generation are superficial; while Cameron built on Western cultural tradition, the Post-Modernists have mostly deconstructed it. The look may seem similar but the effect couldn’t be more different.
“Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron” is a fascinating little show that braids intellectual history with the story of Cameron’s role in early photography. Organized by Malcolm Daniel, senior curator in the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s on display at the Met until January 5. This choice selection of portraits by Cameron shouldn’t be missed by anyone who’s interested in photography, art or history.
Cameron began as a determined amateur, at the age of 48, but quickly went professional, establishing a quirky but powerful style. While other early photographers struggled for the sharp and detailed image, she used her camera as the Symbolists used paint—to evoke atmosphere and feeling.
Cameron gave the world iconic images of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, then hailed as the literary giant of his age. Once you see Cameron’s 1865 year portrait of him reading—Tennyson in brooding profile, his unkempt, wiry hair and scruffy beard surrounding his head like crown of thorns—the picture will haunt you. The poet, who was a neighbor of Cameron’s on the Isle of Wight, aptly named it “the dirty monk” and used it as the frontispiece for “Idylls of the King.”
Just as memorable is her portrait of controversial philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1891), whom she photographed in half-shadow, staring at the camera from under a furrowed brow. Although Carlyle thought the photo made him look, “terrifically ugly and woe-begone,” Cameron said she’d portrayed him as “a rough block of Michelangelo’s sculpture.”
In contrast to her very serious portraits of esteemed Victorian men, Cameron’s portraits of women were often fanciful. She dressed up friends, neighbors and servants and posed them as historical and literary characters. May Princep, a member of the Tennyson family, was posed in an embroidered cap as “Zoe, Maid of Athens” from Lord Byron’s poem and as the tragic “Beatrice,” heroine of a play by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Cameron often pulled her housemaid Mary Hiller into artistic service, dressing her as characters that ranged from the Greek poet Sappho to the Virgin Mary.
Calling her male portraits “men great thro’ genius” and her female ones “women great thro’ love,” Cameron deftly packaged her work to indulge Victorian assumptions about gender. Her men tended to look like they were contemplating universal truths, while her women most often seemed to be daydreaming about romance.
That reflected Cameron’s own attitudes to some extent, but, in her best portraits of women, Cameron seems to reach into their souls, just as she does in her best portraits of men.
One of her favorite subjects was her niece and namesake Julia Jackson, a stunning woman who became the mother of Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell. In many of Cameron’s photos, Jackson looks straight at the camera with the self-possession of a male “genius.” We can almost feel the heat of the embers that would flame in the next generation.
Cameron’s career as a photographer flourished for a brief 11 years. In 1875, she and her husband moved back to Ceylon, where she struggled to find the right supplies to continue her work. Few of her final photographs survive.
Yet many of the pictures she left behind from her time in England remain unforgettable images for us today. We can only marvel at the fact that, in little more than a decade, a Victorian woman with little preparation or training became one of the most important pioneers of early photography.
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