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Masters of Photography
Julia Margaret Cameron

Text from A New History of Photography

...Lewis Carroll, for instance, never understood why Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) wanted not sharp but differential focus. What she was seeking, of course, was Rejlander's sense of "plasticity", a modeled effect which created an expression of feeling rather than a depiction of fact. She was benefiting from Rejlander's art studies to achieve the high drama of Old Master paintings. Long before she took up photography seriously in 1863, Cameron had presented albums and gift books to her many friends. In 1859, she gave one to the Marquis of Lansdowne which consisted mainly of photographs by Rejlander.

In 1863, Rejlander came to the Isle of Wight to photograph her neighbor Tennyson and it seems likely that she learned her basic technique from him then, when he made genre subjects involving her family and servants. Also on the Isle of Wight was C. Jabez Hughes, who had written on art photography in terms which exactly matched Cameron's intentions: "When deep and earnest minds, seeking to express their ideas of Moral and Religious Beauty, employ High Art Photography, then may we be proud of our glorious art, and of having aided in its elevation."

Secure in her religious beliefs as a High Church Anglican, Cameron thought that religious art was far from dead and could be revived in photography - if only she could strike the right chord. To the Victorian, "art" was technique, "fine art" was expressive but not necessarily ethical, and "high art" was Christian. It was a moral duty for Cameron, therefore, to show people in the light of their potential immortality. John Henry Newman wrote: "Even our friends around are invested with unearthly brightness - no longer imperfect men, but beings taken into Divine favor, stamped with His seal, and in training for future happiness." This reference to stamping with a seal reflected the typological aesthetic of the Victorian period: divine meaning was inherent in every event, and links with the next world were detectable in every person.

For instance, Cameron's The Return: After Three Days conflates several episodes in the life of Christ: his youthful disputation with the doctors in the Temple, the presence of the three Marys at his entombment, and his appearance to the same three women at the Resurrection. The focus of the pictures falls on the boy Christ. The flowers, which are out of focus, suggest rather than represent his passion. Flesh and Spirit are thus united in this typological aesthetic.

Cameron, born in Calcutta, was married to Art in the person of a husband who had written a treatise on the sublime and beautiful, and to Science in the person of Sir John Herschel, who had discovered the photographic use of hypo and sent her Talbotypes as early as 1841. In 1848, she returned to Britain with her husband to raise their six children, to read Tennyson and Carlyle, to go to art exhibitions, and to befriend G. F. Watts, the Symbolist painter.

Moral she may have been, puritanical she was not. She acknowledged her husband's recognition (in his treatise) that there are certain qualities in the human figure that arouse sexual desire, although her translation of Gottfried Bilrger's Leonora (1847) suggests she believed that the will of God should exercise some control over it. Bilrger's poem, also translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is about a maiden, who, unreconciled to God's will, receives Death into her arms in the guise of her absent lover. It is a Gothic version of the type of impenitent Magdalene whom Cameron portrayed in the guise of Goethe's Gretchen, Tennyson's May Queen, and Shakespeare's Ophelia.

But in Cameron's time, the penitent Magdalene was considered to be highly privileged, insofar as she was the last to leave Christ on the cross, and the very first to see him in the garden of the Resurrection. Cameron merges her with The Angel at the Tomb, a single figure who combines both carnal and heavenly love to become a woman charged with bringing believers to the faith.

The fact that Cameron used the same model in a similar pose in The Kiss of Peace, where she has the task of comforting the young Virgin in a scene evoking the subject of the Visitation, confirms her desire to connect the flesh with the spirit in a way which was to an extent subversive of conventional doctrine.

It was this boldness of interpretation and confidence in treating a difficult subject which made Cameron not merely derivative as an artist. She created a style in which she could work out her cultural conflicts visually, and so offer imaginative solutions to moral and religious questions.

Her most dangerous venture into the realm of Christian psychology is found in her portrait of a man of Mediterranean type with lowered eyes and several days' growth of beard. Feelings of mental pain rather than physical suffering are expressed in the downcast eyes which suggest an interior state of resentment as well as resignation. It comes as a surprise to discover that this image, with its startling resemblance to Domenico Fetti's painting of the face of Christ with lowered eyes, is entitled Iago: Study from an Italian; it seems to depict an Ecce Homo or Man of Sorrows. The absence of a bloody crown of thorns does... But in giving her photograph a Shakespearean title Cameron opted for artistic discretion and theological reserve. Such an image in paint would have been troubling enough to an age which preferred Christ meek and mild, even in his suffering, but to portray him at such a moment of emotional intensity in such an ambiguous way was sheer heresy - the smashing of a shibboleth. To do it in the most incarnational of all mediums, photography, was to break the ultimate taboo of depicting the Messiah naturalistically.

Yet her title revealed as much as it concealed. Iago and Othello are as indissolubly linked as complementary figures, as Christ and Judas - the Judas who grimly fulfilled Christ's destiny, and so earned, perhaps, a place in the Christian mystery comparable with that of Mary Magdalene.

Between 1870 and 75, Cameron sent twenty-eight of her photographs to Victor Hugo. Among them was one made of the story of Beatrice Cenci who committed incest with her father, conspired with her mother to kill him, and was martyred for both "crimes". Derived though the theme was from a painting attributed in her time to Guido Reni, Cameron's versions far excel the original in psychological insight and artistic treatment. As Jean-Marie Bruson has commented: "In the midst of the flowing mass of hair and drapery, the still child-like face, skillfully modeled by the softest of lights and bathed in dreamlike soft-focus, seems to quiver with pent-up emotion, marvelously expressing the distress of the young girl weighed down by destiny." This compassionate - even sympathetic - attitude towards those who commit sin is one which appealed to the Symbolists later in the century.

Cameron's was a luminous and visionary art of photography, pursued against the positivistic tendency of the day. She rejected the meticulously observed and highly defined detail of the artisan photographers, yet there was nothing eccentric or amateur in her approach. The financial plight of her family at the time when she began to work at her photography was so acute that it must have taken an incredible act of will to launch herself into a field where few women had a place. Her astonishing energy and boldness carried her through all difficulties, even if she did not make the living she had hoped for. When she returned to the East in 1875, to die in Ceylon in 1879, it was because her family was utterly penniless. This remarkable woman, with enough Indian blood on the French side of the family and enough of an education in France to make her different from the ordinary Englishwoman, was a radical conservative like Rejlander, who also came from an unconventional origin. They both believed in the Old Masters but, in Cameron's case especially, they managed to transform art studies into pictures completely expressive in their own right.


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