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article imageReview: Beauty and Whimsy at The Met's Latest Photography Exhibition Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Sep 2, 2013 in Entertainment
New York - Photography is front and center the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now, with a showing of the work of English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, best-known for her portraits of Victorian figures including Charles Darwin and Thomas Carlyle.
The show, which runs at the Met through January 5th, 2014, offers 38 prints from the Cameron canon, and exemplifies why her work drew, and continues to draw stark reactions. As astutely noted in a recent New York Times review, the exhibit shows the Calcutta-born photographer "ascending almost instantly from accidental hobbyist to relentless and gifted professional." She eschewed the minute detail and sharp focus that characterized the work of her Victorian photographer cohorts, preferring instead soft focus, lengthy exposure times, and the carefully directed use of sunlight to shape her images, many of which delve into the fantastical, the whimsical, the literary and religious. “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
Emphasizing subject over technique, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) came to photography when, in 1863, on her 48th birthday, her daughter and son-in-law gifted her with a camera, in order that she pass the time, entering into what might, in contemporary terms, be called her "empty nester" phase. Taking to the burgeoning medium with much ease, Cameron invited a pantheon of friends -many of whom were eminent personalities and thinkers of the era -to sit for her. They included scientists Charles Darwin and John Herschel, philosopher Thomas Carlyle, poets Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson (the latter of whom was a neighbor on her Isle of Wight abode), violinist Joseph Joachim, and her husband, Charles Hay Cameron.
 King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters   1872. Bequest of Maurice B. Sendak  2013 (2...
"King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters", 1872. Bequest of Maurice B. Sendak, 2013 (2013.159.3). The three Liddell sisters -Lorina, Elizabeth, and Alice -posed with the photographer’s husband playing the tragically deceived King Lear in one of Cameron’s few Shakespearean compositions.
Julia Margaret Cameron
The self-taught photographer had a highly romanticized view of life and artists; that perspective shapes much of her work, particularly the liberal use of female archetypes. There is a great irony at work here, that Cameron was something of a maverick at a time when very few women were experimenting with photography, even though she was, in the main, very much a product of her Victorian era, with its emphasis on strict gender roles and ideas. The Met exhibit highlights this line between Cameron's straight-ahead portraiture (mainly men, who are mostly allowed to be what they are: scientists, thinkers, writers) and her more whimsical works (Arthurian legends, biblical and literary scenes, mythological figures, fleshed out by costumed women). The exhibition nicely provides historical (and perhaps creative) context, and a good glimpse of the age and of the whimsical, sharp humor bubbling beneath the good manners (Tennyson named his own portrait, one in 1865, "The Dirty Monk"). One room, mainly populated by male figures, gives way to ladies, with literary/religious/mythological references (Circe, Sappho, Cassiopeia, the Virgin Mary, Coleridge's Christabel), though there are also some stunning portraits on display that transcend their cloyingly archetypal cages. The show has been so cleverly selected (entirely from the Met's own archives), that one thinks of Cameron's depictions of her female heroines outside the exhibit's walls proper: the religious iconography, the mythological carvings, the silent gods and goddesses, the Empresses, Queens, dancers, dreamers, mothers, and maidens sitting silent and curious within the immense walls of the Met are having conversations with Cameron's women, elevating her to a seat at the table with the Canovas, the Picassos, the Rodins, the myriad of ancient sculptors and artists.
Not that Cameron aspired to be a man, let alone equal to one. A product of her age, Cameron was mother to six children and, save for her photography passion, a deeply traditional woman of her era, with an affluent family background. A main figure in her personal and photographic life was her husband, jurist John Hay Cameron. With his long, flowing white beard and beak-like nose, Cameron (twenty years' Julia's senior) indulged his wife in her photographic passions and pursuits, sitting as a model for a number of series and scenarios. In the Met's current show, he can be seen as Merlin (in "Vivian and Merlin" from 1874) and King Lear (in a scene from Shakespeare's play, from 1872). His white locks, faraway look, and commanding presence, lovingly captured with Cameron's signature mix of slapdash technique and painterly eye, show a deeply intelligent man who shares his wife's streak of whimsy and playfulness. If Cameron produced no direct descendants who carried on her work, her influence can nonetheless be sensed in the work of more contemporary photographers. "Pomona" (featuring Lewis-Carroll-muse Alice Liddell) has a very modern look, like something taken from Mapplethorpe's colorful cast of 1970s characters, or Terry Richardson's sleek contemporary pool. With a hand-on-hip pose, and a delicate lace-eyelet dress draped around her petite frame, Liddell, with a no-nonsense stare and a blank face framed by cheekbones and and short-cropped black bangs, long locks flowing around her shoulders, betrays a contemporary attitude and bearing. It's a remarkable work that shows Cameron's talent for capturing unique features that move past her mythological fascinations and into a more human mode of exploration.
The portrait of her niece, "Mrs. Herbert Duckworth" (aka Julia Jackson, aka Virginia Woolf's mother) is a dramatically-lit profile shot that anticipates the later portraiture of Richard Avedon and Annie Liebowitz, with its dramatic lighting and warmish glow.
 Mrs. Herbert Duckworth   1867. Gilman Collection  Purchase  Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts  2005 (2...
"Mrs. Herbert Duckworth", 1867. Gilman Collection, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2005 (2005.100.26). This portrait of Julia Jackson was made the year she married Herbert Duckworth. Three years later she was a widow and the mother of three children. Her second marriage, in 1878, to the great Victorian intellectual Sir Leslie Stephen, produced the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf.
Julia Margaret Cameron
It seems trite to write off Cameron's extreme dedication and expertise, especially considering that photography in Victorian England was no easy task. The setting up, shooting, and printing of her own work, on her own (the Met's senior curator of photography, Malcolm Daniel, remarked at the media preview that friends would note Cameron's silver nitrate-stained hands and clothing while she worked) is no small feat - but it can't erase the whiff of privilege her gaze reveals. While she "wasn't really interested in documentation of how people looked," as Daniel put it, she found meaning and creative satisfaction in bringing together and array of interesting artists and thinkers, not only relatives, but those around her on a day-to-day basis, like her beautiful housemaid Mary Hillier. The problem with these portraits is not their content but their context; when Cameron turns her eye to the non-arts, non-elite crowd, her subjects seem like mere playthings pushed into Cameron's un-self-aware fairytale world of beauty and blind loveliness. That somewhat robs Cameron's work of the gritty authenticity it occasionally needs. Looking at her work, even in an exhibit as thoughtfully prepared and presented as this one, is like eating a entire white layer cake for breakfast; it's a beautiful, delicious treat, but you're soon hungry for greasy bacon and eggs with whole wheat toast and strong black coffee. Cameron's soft-focus fantasies become boring, not beautiful, purely because Cameron's vision wholly lacks the sort of self-meets-worldly awareness it needs in order to move past the ephemeral.
There's something imbalanced in its lack of acknowledging the ugly, the difficult, the unseemly (of which there was certainly plenty in Victorian England), which is surely no fault of the curator's. In fact, Daniel's careful eye uncovers some gems through fascinating arrangements and selection, an approach that embraces imperfection. The cracked and damaged prints which Cameron sought to preserve are shown alongside more "perfect" ones; it's this embrace of imperfection -the artist's and the curator's -which renders Cameron's work so beguiling and memorable. As Anthony Lane asked in a recent review for New Yorker magazine, referring to "Sappho", "Do we think the less of this study in dignity, or do we see past such flaws, or through them, much as we accept them in somebody we love?"
 Sappho   1865. The Rubel Collection  Purchase  Jennifer and Joseph Duke and Anonymous Gifts  1997 (...
"Sappho", 1865. The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Jennifer and Joseph Duke and Anonymous Gifts, 1997 (1997.382.39). Cameron's maid Mary Hillier, posing as Sappho for a profile portrait in the Florentine quattrocento style, perhaps inspired by the chromolithographic reproductions of Italian paintings distributed by the Arundel Society, of which Cameron was a member. The image has such presence that Cameron decided to print it despite having cracked the negative.
Julia Margaret Cameron
Hillier is shown in a succession of costumes, her own portrait sandwiched between "Sappho" and "Circe" (both from 1865), providing a no less romantic perspective, with head up and eyes off in the distance. Each work provides a clue to Cameron's technique as well as her approach. Lane is keen to note the famous quote by Cameron biographer Victoria Olsen in his review: "Cameron could make perfectly focused images but she did not always want to.” Likewise with poet Philip Worsley's portrait, hanging directly across from the main entrance, simultaneously challenging the viewer to keep their distance and enticing them to come closer, or the portrait of Déjatch Alámayou, the Ethiopian boy, carefully hung on its own little pillar. The directness of these portraits -their content as well as their style -are stunning. Worsley's stare, his upright pose, his angular face -all hint at a fierce, burning spirit, the print's lengthy exposure giving an eerie glow to his handsome if thin features. Alámayou's expression, by contrast, is tragic; awkwardly holding, with open palms, a stiff white doll, the child, sumptuously attired in embroidered white layers, his eyes distant, his expression achingly sad. Cameron's long-exposure technique, combined with her soft focus, imbues the portrait with an immediacy and humanity, so that one can almost see his breath around his face, the fluttering of eyelashes, his deep sadness flowing from every part of his small body, in slow, wrenching streams. The boy's expression is a fascinating, wrenching echo of his sad history, and offers an intense depth of psychological insight, owing to Cameron's singularly unique approach to her art. It's to the curator's immense credit that they've been so carefully placed around the exhibition, providing what I think is a hearty, and necessary, bit of "bacon" amidst the cream puffs.
Philip Stanhope Worsley  1866. Gilman Collection  Purchase  The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift ...
Philip Stanhope Worsley, 1866. Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005 (2005.100.27). An Oxford-educated poet, Worsley died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty. Cameron’s portrait, made the year of his death, vividly conveys the intensity of Worsley’s intellectual life and something of its tragedy.
Julia Margaret Cameron
The fact her work slowed to a stop entirely after her move back to East Asia in 1875 is telling, if tragic. As Masters of Photography notes, Cameron "complained in letters about the difficulties of getting chemicals and pure water to develop and print photographs. Also, in India, she did not have access to Little Holland House's artistic community. She also did not have a market to distribute her photographs as she had in England." She may not, as Daniel noted, have been so interested in strict documentation, but she had a keen talent for seeing beneath the surface of things. The fact she wasn't able to photograph at the very moment she might've produced something deeply insightful in India is a loss not just for photography, but for the world of art, which she so worshipped and, one senses, wanted to be a part of. This exhibit shows a woman on the edge of greatness, with all her splendor and faults, for good, for bad, forever. Just make sure you get a good breakfast first.
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