Sunday, 21 February 2016

Late developments

The V&A's free exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron's ground-breaking, slightly out of focus, scratched, and even smudged photographs celebrates the bicentenary of her birth in Calcutta as well as marking 150 years since her first public show at the same venue. Then known as the South Kensington Museum.

Fifty may seem relatively old to be hosting your first show but she'd only taken up photography seriously two years earlier when she'd been presented with a camera as a present by her daughter. By then she'd been educated in France, moved back to India, married Charles Hay Cameron (twenty years her senior and a member of the Law Commission), then to London, before finally settling in the Isle of Wight in a home they named Dimbola Lodge. So, in fact, her progress was actually pretty rapid.

Her first subjects, like most snappers, were family and friends. But she experimented with dramatic lighting and close up composition thus forging what was to become a signature style. A portrait of her grandson, Archie, in the guise of the Christ child foretold her habit of placing her subjects in biblical and allegorical settings.

Another of Alfred Tennyson, her Isle of Wight neighbour and friend, positioned her neatly in the nascent field of celebrity portrait. This area of her work also took in images of playwright Robert Browning, violinist Joseph Joachim, the astronomer Herschel, and, perhaps most notably Charles Darwin. There was even one of Prince Dejazmatch Alemayehu, the son of the Ethiopian emperor.

Society figures too like Lord and Lady Elcho. Lady Adelaide Talbot as Melancholy (from the Milton poem Il Penseroso) could almost pass as a still frame from a Carl Theodor Dreyer film.

Unperturbed by conservative observers who suggested that photography should only be used to document truthful subject matter she pushed forward with interpretations of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Guido Reni proving photography could operate equally both as art form and reportage.

Inspiration too came from Homer, Keats and Coleridge. Even the sentimental genre paintings of the time. Whilst one eye looked back another was focused on the horizon. She gently pushed at prevalent gender stereotyping. Her women posed in what was then seen as traditionally male fashion, men appeared as historical female figures, and an 1865 shot showed Cameron's maid, Mary Hillier, not for the last time, as Sappho.

Despite the taboo testing her devout Christianity was often to the fore. Not least in a series of Madonna groups featuring, again, Mary Hillier. That maid earned her keep. Mangers, crosses, drapery, flowers, and other signifiers of the holy life were all employed to emphasise the virtuous nature of her beliefs. To modern eyes these are among her weaker works, moralising and twee with a hint of the dreaded chocolate box, but it's worth a deeper look. Incremental technological innovations had come into play whilst darkness, and even some good old fashioned Old Testament death, lurked in the murky margins.

In 1874 Tennyson invited Cameron, and she accepted, to provide illustrations to his Idylls of the King. There's a kind of Moondog vibe to the above piece and it bears witness to her increasing confidence. As did her brave use of soft focus, multiple negatives and combination prints.

Though not to the liking of many critics at the time she had still become both a successful and a commercial artist unashamed, and unabashed, in using her connections to increase her capital. The fact her high society chums were able to sign the portraits before sale didn't hurt none either.

Then, at the height of her fame in 1875, the family moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where, due to a whole host of logistical problems, her artistic career ended as abruptly as it had began. She'd had barely more than a decade of notoriety and four years later she passed away at the age of 63.

This exhibition does a good job of shedding some light on a photographic pioneer who was certainly not well known to this writer prior to his attendance. It could, perhaps, have compared and contrasted her against contemporaries and gave a better understanding of the time and milieu in which she worked. Then again that could be another show for another day - and probably not a free one either.

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