Monday, October 25, 2010

Julia Margaret Cameron

Whisper of the Muse / Portrait of G.F. Watts
British, Freshwater, Isle of Wight, April 1865
Albumen print
10 1/4 x 8 7/16 in. 
The other week I was teaching the art history kids about the birth of photography in France and England, which meant I got to revisit the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. I won't bore you with a blow by blow account of how photography was invented and developed - for that I recommend the short essays from the MET, or this exhibition review by Geoffrey Batchen. But I might just indulge for a moment, with a few words about JMC.
Cameron was given a camera as a gift and just began experimenting, but quickly became more serious about photography, realising the possibilities of the new medium as an art form. She would dress up her friends and family, posing them in the guise of biblical and literary subjects. Tennyson, who was a close friend of Cameron's described her subjects as 'victims', as they were forced to endure the long exposure times. The first cameras could take minutes to capture an image - and sitting still for that long would have been absolute torture! Portrait studios had braces they would strap you into from the back to keep your head and body still during the shoot, but would be hidden from view. I just love this quote from one of Cameron's sitters:
"The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. … The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth—but here I utterly broke down, for Mr. Cameron, who was very aged, and had unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman."  - From here.

I love the accidents of the medium that Cameron embraced, like the scratches and blurs. In her day, she received masses of criticism for this, but I think now it is these elements of her work that seem so modern. I also love the way she crops the group portraits in unexpected ways, marking a departure from traditional painted depictions of these subjects. She really explored the ways in which photography could represent these familiar motifs differently from painting, drawing and sculpture. If you like her work - there is plenty more floating around the Internet, so enjoy!
A Study of the Cenci, May 1868
Albumen print
11 1/16 x 8 15/16 in.
Prayer and Praise
British, Freshwater, Isle of Wight, 1865
Albumen print
11 1/16 x 8 15/16 in.

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