Imagine photographs that “electrify you with delight and startle the world,” and one does not automatically think of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79). Nevertheless, she was the author of both the photographs and the rave review. Today we are more likely to be startled by Cameron’s brazen self-confidence than by her portraits and ‘literary’ fancies.
The Art Gallery of NSW is hosting a survey of Cameron’s work put together by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This is one of three V & A exhibitions currently touring Australia, along with Inspiration by Design at the State Library of NSW, and David Bowie is, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Another show, Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion, has just finished its tour.
It seems the V & A has become the lender of choice for Australian public galleries. Aside from the general excellence of its holdings and exhibitions, the museum has positioned itself as an exporter of cultural product while most of its peers prefer to act as fortresses. This is an enterprising role in a world in which cultural institutions are developing progressively fewer exhibitions of their own – although the born-again National Gallery of Victoria is an exception to the rule.
Julia Margaret Cameron is not the kind of show that may be expected to draw the crowds, and many potential visitors will be deterred by the gallery’s $15 admission fee. (The State Library show is free). The exhibition includes more than 100 images from the V & A’s permanent collection, but it is not a retrospective. One misses a few classics such as the 1867 portrait of Thomas Carlyle, in which the renowned sage stares out at the viewer with manic intensity, his face enveloped in shadow.
The Carlyle portrait is a good example of Cameron’s propensity to turn technical faults into creative innovations, as some critics would argue that she simply got the lighting wrong. There are many pictures in the AGNSW show that are blurred, out-of-focus, stained or smudged, but as curator, Marta Weiss, explains, Cameron and her admirers were happy to claim everything in the name of art.
Cameron took up photography at the age of 48, and by the time of her death, 14 years later, she had left more than 1,200 images. She is best-known for her portraits of eminent Victorians such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson and G.W.Watts. The other strand of her work is more experimental – a long series of tableaux vivants based on scenes from the Bible and classical mythology. In these images one recognises her affinities with artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian Olympians, who felt a similar reverence for the middle ages and the classical past.
Weiss’s catalogue essay charts the indignation Cameron’s work caused in photographic circles of the time. Her soft-focus approach irritated those who believed that sharp outlines were crucial to the success of a picture. This was a quality that allegedly established the superiority of a photograph over a painting, so why try to make your photos as vague as a painted canvas?
Such arguments preceded the birth of Pictorialism, a movement that aimed to establish photography as a true art form, usually by employing impressionistic, soft-focus effects. Cameron died almost a decade before Pictorialism arrived, but she was an important precursor.
We may never know how much was intentional or accidental in Cameron’s work because of her talent for turning mistakes into creative triumphs. The cumbersome nature of the cameras she used, in those pre-Kodak days, and the array of processes needed to develop an image, made each picture a feat that required the utmost skill and patience. Judging by her letters, these were not defining traits of Cameron’s personality. She was egocentric, full of ideas, desirous of praise and financial success, and willing to make use of social connections.
Cameron’s male portraits remind us of the shaggy, unkempt appearance of those great men of the Victorian era. One can almost smell the mildew and pipe tobacco, and imagine beards dangling in soup bowls. The theory was that one could discern the ‘nobility’ of an author from his portrait, but instead we see elderly mandarins who have long ceased caring about their appearance.
Her female subjects stare blankly out of the picture, imitating classical statues or Renaissance Madonnas. Cameron’s maid, Mary Hillier, appears time and again, in the roles of the Virgin Mary, Sappho, or an allegorical figure. Children are usually naked, or lightly draped, as symbols of innocence and truth. It’s a dismal fact that one could not take such photos in Australia today without risking prosecution. So much for “Victorian values”.
There is something genuinely moving in these images of women and girls pressed tightly together within a frame, even if Cameron can be too ambitious, as in the companion pieces: The five Wise Virgins and The five Foolish Virgins of 1864. By using the same models she seems to suggest there is little difference between these two states. The compositions are notably clumsy and ill-matched, allowing one contemporary reviewer to quip that all the virgins looked foolish.
Her taste for theatricality may have been problematic but Cameron’s pictures of women and girls are her most original contributions to photography. Despite their Hebrew or Hellenic trappings they document a subtle empathy that exists between women of all ages. Australian photographer, Anne Ferran, discerned this feeling in Cameron’s work, producing a homage, Scenes on the death of nature (1986), which has become a classic in its own right.
Cameron’s slightly blurred images may be intentionally dream-like, but we can’t help thinking about her young models. Although they may be playing a role, these children had their entire lives in front of them. The photographs capture the evanescence of childhood, that all-too-brief idyll the Victorians and Edwardians worshipped and mourned in works such as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) or Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863), let alone the novels of Charles Dickens.
When we look at a picture such as The Turtle Doves (1864), which shows two tiny girls locked in an embrace, it’s impossible to view such a scene in the same manner as a Victorian audience. Dr. Freud has intervened, filling our heads with ideas of early sexual development. “Innocence” is a concept that has fallen out of fashion.
Neither can we properly understand the deep, abiding fascination the Victorians felt for the Greeks and Romans, whose empire-building held a moral warning for Britain’s own imperial achievements. Walter Pater would praise Greek sculpture for its “central impassivity” – which passes as an excellent description of the blank expressions on the faces of Cameron’s models, as they sat in front of the camera impersonating works of art.
As a photographer Cameron was a maverick – a self-styled outsider who followed her own path, regardless of professional standards. She did not make works for the photographic community but for the intellectual circles in which she mixed. In this milieu she was the consummate insider – a connection that irritated those photographers who resented the favourable notices she received from renowned writers and artists who knew little about the arcane techniques of the trade.
Her biographer, Victoria Olsen, makes an apt comparison between Cameron’s group and the Bloomsbury set that would follow years later. One of Cameron’s most striking subjects is Julia Jackson, who modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites and would go on to be the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.
Both Cameron’s photos and Woolf’s novels, writes Olsen, give us “the half-pleasant, half-painful sensation of being inside and outside their magic circles. We can be honorary members of the club, but only until the curtain falls.”
This neatly captures the hermetic atmosphere of Cameron’s images, which celebrate the pinnacles of western culture using a small group of friends and an array of cheap props. Her pictures are amateur pantomimes that flirt with absurdity, but retain their grace and elegance.
One might laugh at these people, but just as easily admire them. These are records of a lost world, when the English could honestly feel themselves to be the true heirs of the Greeks and Romans, and the protectors of the Christian faith. It would all change with the First World War, but that brief moment of ease and confidence has been preserved forever in these pictures.
Julia Margaret Cameron
Art Gallery of NSW, until 25 October
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26th September, 2015