Julia Margaret Cameron: The Passionate Amateur

Julia Margaret Cameron, Pomona, 1872A compact show of Julia Margaret Cameron’s lovely photographs, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (August 19, 2013–January 5, 2014), should make us reconsider the word amateur. Cameron was born in Calcutta and educated in France as a child (she spoke French, German and some Italian). She devoted most of her life to her large family and an impressive circle of friends, which included major literary and intellectual figures. In 1863, her daughter Julia and son-in-law Charles Norman gave her a camera, and Cameron—a society hostess in her late forties—became an important artist in the new medium of photography.

     The discipline of photography was launched, in large part, by amateurs, driven by scientific curiosity and a love of beauty. They had extraordinary patience and stamina. Cameras were cumbersome, and the chemicals used were toxic and messy. Cameron’s process involved wet collodion glass negatives printed on album paper. Posing for the camera was difficult; the sitter had to remain still for about seven minutes. The word amateur today carries connotations of dabbling and casual hobbyism. The Victorians recognized the root of the word was love, often taken to the level of obsession, but subjected to the discipline of hard work. Charles Dodgson, respected professor of mathematics, created the Alice in Wonderland books and took photographs, as well. He is better known now as Lewis Carroll.

     Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Carroll’s books and a favorite child model of his, appears in the Met exhibition in Cameron’s Pomona (1872), as a formidable young woman. The title refers to the Roman goddess of fruit, a counterpart to Floa, goddess of flowers. Cameron poses her model with foliage pressing around her, with her hand on her hip and a direct gaze. Cameron worked in a converted chicken coop, which she called her glass house, at her home on the Isle of Wight. She dragooned house maids and nieces, cajoled family friends and famous men—they were sometimes one and the same—into sitting for her.

     John Herschel (1815-79), photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in April 1867.Among the three dozen or so works in the show are portraits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1865), who was a neighbor, Thomas Carlyle (1867) and Sir John Herschel (1867). Cameron later made a series of photographic tableaux vivantes to illustrate Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. There is an example in the show: The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere (1874). This sort of fancy-dress staging tends to look old-fashioned today, in the way a painting on the same subject—D.G. Rossetti’s formally inventive watercolor, for example—does not. Cameron’s portraits of Hershel, on the other hand, have the timelessness of masterpieces. The esteemed astronomer was a longtime friend. He was interested in photography and is sometimes credited with inventing the term, which means “writing with light.” Cameron asked him to wash his hair before posing, and she illuminates the white fluff to create a halo around his wise face.

     Nineteenth-century photographs could be remarkably sharp in focus; there are some breathtakingly clear shots of cathedral façades and foliage. Cameron deliberately blurs her images at times, an aesthetic choice that creates an aura of mystery. She also favors tight close-ups, in an era when the carte-de-visite full figure was in vogue. Many of her titles are literary allusions, but these are not narrative pictures. Beatrice (1866) refers to the sixteenth-century Beatrice Cenci, a young woman accused of parricide after her father raped her. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poetic drama on the subject, The Cenci, and Robert Browning wrote a book-length poem exploring different points of view, proto-Rashomon style. Cameron’s grave young beauty wears a turban headdress, in homage to a Guido Reni painting, long thought to be a portrait. You don’t need to know any of this to admire Cameron’s work, but the title suggests the level of cultural literacy the Victorians took for granted.

The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty, 1866

     The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty (1866) takes its title from Milton, but the young woman seems too real—with her challenging gaze and wild hair—to be an allegory. The title may be fanciful, but this is no mannequin personification. Cameron captures an undercurrent of wildness. Christabel (1866) seems closest to the spirit of its inspiration, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s marvelous vampire romance. The model half-closes her eyes, like a medium going into a trance; her flowing hair fades out into the cloudy light behind her. (Rossetti admired Cameron’s photographs and used her nimbus effect in his Beata Beatrix.) Cameron frames her subject slightly off-center, so that the luminous mist takes on a life of its own. Christabel does not seem passive but like someone channeling her own power. Cameron, in these works, anticipates D.W. Griffith, who established the expressive energy of the close-up in film.

     Cameron dispensed with literary allusion in photographs of her niece Julia Jackson, who would become the mother of Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote a light-hearted play, Freshwater, about her great-aunt’s salon and published, through her Hogarth Press, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women (1926). Cameron’s Julia Jackson (1867) demonstrates how impressive the sitter must have been, with her riveting gaze. The way the light rakes her face and the loose hair, the way she emerges from the gloom—this simplification strengthens the force of her personality. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Cameron avoided a documentary interest in the minutia of contemporary fashion. Her models are unbonneted and uncorseted. The photographs are mesmerizing, as reflections of a cultural milieu, as explorations of a medium and as manifestations of an aesthetic vision.

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