Is there nothing new under the photographic sun? The Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron
(1815-1879) is celebrated for her moodily romantic portraits of artists and intellectuals as well as for allegorical scenes drawn from literature and myth. Her explorations of identity and masquerade at the dawn of the photo era are on view in an excellent new exhibition of 38 works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
, all from the museum's own holdings. And remarkably, the show reveals Cameron as something of a Postmodernist avant la lettre
. The Victorian colonial—she was born in Calcutta, raised her six children in England, and died on the family coffee plantation in Ceylon—turns out to be the aesthetic doppelganger of our very own queen of contemporary pictorialism, Cindy Sherman
The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty (1866)
Silly, I know, but the parallels are too delicious to ignore. Cameron was a great portraitist, making a place for herself as visionary woman in a male-dominated field. Her unique specialty was the intense close-up of a brooding subject, notably, in her case, the Great Men of her day, including English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson; mathematician and scientist Sir John Herschel; historian Thomas Carlyle; and the artists William Holman Hunt and George Frederick Watts. (It's a disappointment to realize that though Cameron's circle included accomplished women, she restricted her portraits to men and young women who could serve as emblems of beauty. Women should not be photographed, Cameron felt, between the ages of 18 and 60).
Cameron's singular technique, romantic and expressionistic in character, was to photograph a not-entirely-immobile sitter with an inexactitude of focus, as if to capture a living, breathing subject. More than one critic in Cameron's time complained about this effect, which seemed contrary to photography's natural gift for producing a sharp-edged copy of the world. For Cameron, an idealistic and somewhat disembodied "poetic truth" was the point, rather than a humdrum mimesis.
Sir John Herschel (1867)
Shermanesque as well are Cameron's painstaking photographic tableaux of costumed subjects illustrating familiar narratives. Clearly conceiving photography as a sort of theater, Cameron had her models enact scenes from myth, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Coleridge, as well as producing an entire cycle of photographs inspired by Tennyson: the two-volume, 52-photo Illustrations to Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King' and Other Poems. It elegantly prefigures the Postmodernist theme of photography as a manifestation of a text.
(That poetry was a more popular medium than art at the time—a dynamic that has been dramatically reversed today—can be gleaned from the story behind the series. Tennyson was Cameron’s friend and her neighbor on the Isle of Wight. When he asked her to provide images for his poetry, she readily agreed, writing, "It is immorality for me to be bound up with you.")
The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere (1874)
Tableaux vivant were a Victorian commonplace, and Cameron was not the sole woman photographer of her time interested in this kind of image-making. Her contemporary, Lady Clementine Hawarden, also took up similar notions in her photographs of her three eldest daughters, costumed and posed in landscapes in natural light.
Like a Postmodernist, Cameron knew her photographs used “codes,” such as unbound hair as a signal for sensuality, and understood that identity is a “social construction”—though she might have puzzled over the terms. What she lacked was any Postmodern irony about the motifs that she employed. She was engaged in a quest for moral (and visual) uplift, which she hoped her photographs would foster.
King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters (1872)
For what it’s worth, in the light of Cameron’s example, it can be difficult to remain convinced of Postmodernism’s vaunted insincerity. Only a viewer with a heart of stone could stand in front of Sherman's photographs, for instance, and not believe that they are an index of the artist’s own feelings. Her pictures function exactly as do Cameron's allegorical images of a century and a half earlier.
"Julia Margaret Cameron," which runs through January 5, is the museum's first show devoted to the artist, and is organized by Malcolm Daniel, the Met's senior photography curator. The museum bought 30 Cameron photographs in 1941 for $125, Daniel said, and the museum's most recent Cameron acquisition, the 1872 King Lear and his Daughters (featuring Cameron's husband as the aging monarch and Lewis Carroll's muse Alice Liddell as Cordelia), is a 2013 bequest of the illustrator Maurice Sendak.
Today, Cameron photographs are rare and quite sought-after, according to the 19th-century photo dealer Hans P. Kraus, Jr., whose gallery is located on Park Avenue at 82nd Street. The finest examples have sold for six figures for over a decade; the auction record for a Cameron is about $250,000, set back in 2001. But quality is key. Ever the romantic, Cameron was not always the best technician, and Cameron photographs can be found on the market for less than $5,000.
Walter Robinson is an art critic who was a contributor to
Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). He is also a painter whose work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, and Dorian Grey Gallery. Click here to read his previous See Here column on Artspace.