A Darkroom of Her Own
Annie, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864
by Robyn Ferrell
Julia Margaret Cameron From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
14 Aug-25 Oct 2015 Art Gallery of New South Wales
The rise of a woman photographer with the advent of photography and of women’s emancipation presents an irresistible moment of reflection.
The Victorian era was at once a time of remarkable innovation and of stultifying convention. The story of Julia Margaret Cameron, how she came to photography and became a founding figure of the medium, is a very Victorian one, indelibly stained by the prejudices concerning class and sex, and the real-world opportunities and constraints that shaped the world of taste and culture at the time.
A mother of six in her late forties when she first took up photography seriously, Cameron specialised in a style of photographing which was ahead of her time. She explored the representation of pathos and other affects through the lens while others were still stuck on the ability of the photograph to record a likeness. Her soft-focus pensive portraits of faces made it possible to imagine the photograph as adding something more to portraiture than mere likeness, and something uniquely photographic.
Through her high contrast lighting and careful posing of her subjects, she was able to make pictures that captured an uncanny sense of character and personality. Cameron produced an effect of intimacy between subject and viewer, perhaps in the greater informality of the photograph over the painting, and perhaps also because she mostly photographed people she knew and loved which allowed something of that familiarity to enter the frame.
One of the most evocative on display in this exhibition was also one of her earliest, a portrait of Annie Philpot, the young daughter of a local family. Cameron’s portrait of her in simple soft-focus captures the reticence of adolescence as well as any lauded portraitist.
My Niece Julia, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867
Her 1867 portrait of Julia Jackson (her niece and mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) captured a tangible sense of the woman’s gaze, “as we might imagine a portrait of the soul or of a psychic state laid bare”, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue put it. And Cameron’s photograph illuminates the character of Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay (for whom Julia Jackson was the model) who “bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered”, as Woolf described her in To The Lighthouse.
It’s impossible to separate the wellborn connections of Cameron from her art, since they mark the portraits – many which were of celebrities of her time – providing a privileged access that photographs of the rich and famous give us into their personae to this day. It is just as impossible to leave aside the mores of the period in which she lived, and the exigencies of an upper class life – she photographed improving religious and pre-Raphaelite subjects in order to capture the attentions of a certain taste, and to sell work to finance her sons’ education at boarding schools like Charterhouse.
She was frank about it, the need to make her art pay professionally, but it could on no account become commercial like the many studios that popularly photographed people for a sum at the time. It is thanks to her determined positioning of her work as artistic that it has survived so well; her images were some of the earliest collected photographs in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, purchased by Henry Cole, Director of the South Kensington Museum (as it then was), who was a friend and supporter.
But even in the accounts now given of her life and work, the critics seem unable to escape a certain tone. Cameron is not presented as an art photographer like the masculine icons of the medium; her reputation remains clouded by a scepticism concerning ‘slovenly’ technique and her ‘lady amateur’ status. In making herself an artist, Cameron experienced incredulity from both directions in her time – that of the lack of credibility of photography as art, and the lack of credibility of a woman as an artist.
When added to this the taint of the colonial – she was born in India and returned with her husband to Ceylon in her final years to supervise the family estates, cutting short her art career – it is remarkable that her practice held together as an oeuvre at all. It was lucky that she was such an unabashed promoter of her own work since no one else was convinced to do it for her.
But she has since become influential, despite the obstacles then and now that stand in the way of recognition. The effect she saw possible in the photographic was one that many more modern art photographers have been enchanted by – the uniting of the literal and metaphysical and the making-strange of the real. This intuition is intensified in the many ways the process itself called attention to the artifice of reality in her work, the so-called ‘mistakes and accidents’ that appeared to charm Cameron. Streaks, scratches, spotting and waviness, although imperfections in the materials and processes, heighten the wonder of the realism that can emerge when stars align.
Perfect technique would not have represented this aura nearly so well. And the values of transience and imperfection that are recorded along with the testament of faces and forms give expression to the Victorian metaphysical melancholy; consciousness of the ever-present leveller of death and the many compromising habits of fortune.
It’s almost as though the powerful hypocrisies of the time were best expressed as photographs, not quite art and not what they seem, the pretensions of art paralleling the social pretensions of the period. Cameron’s work, seen together in this way courtesy of the V&A now, produces a striking impression of a photographer pursuing a project as determined as Atget or Le Gray.
About the Author:
Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy and Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. Her most recent book is Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context.