Julia Margaret Cameron's Women, Great Men and Others

By Przyblyski, Jeannene M. | Afterimage, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Julia Margaret Cameron's Women, Great Men and Others


Przyblyski, Jeannene M., Afterimage


"Women mother?."

--Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering

In the beginning Julia Margaret Cameron's place in the history of photography was secured by her portraits of great men. Her portraits of poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Taylor lifted her out of the domestic confines of chicken-coop studios and amateur theatricals. Her portraits of artists George Frederick Watts and William Holman Hunt allowed her penchant for soft focus, ethereal lighting and smudgy printing to be read as aesthetic gravitas rather than amateurish error. Her portraits of scientists John Herschel and Charles Darwin tempered her general reputation for kookiness and immoderate devotion to Art. Even though her great niece Virginia Woolf published a more varied selection of Cameron's images entitled Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women in 1926, it has long seemed abundantly clear that the "fair women" were something else--stagey, as old-fashioned as a frilly Valentine, beautiful, yes, but also more than a little embarrassing.

Times have certainly changed, as have Cameron's critical fortunes. From a Victorian footnote to the history of photographic modernism, she has become the Mother of all art photography. Her moody Madonnas, medieval damsels in distress, fleshy babies and sulky cupids are seen as the objects of another form of subjectivity, the "maternality" of her photographic vision, its insistent overlaying of embracing sight and tender touch, the rebuttal to a purely optical, phallocentric gaze. The revisionist wave began with Mike Weaver, whose 1984 monograph entitled Julia Margaret Cameron, 1815-1879 was followed by Whisper of the Muse: The Overstone Album and Other Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1986. Weaver's sensitive reading of the strong strain of Christian piety and analogical thinking that informed Cameron's practice was accompanied by a sharp attack on those who persisted in seeing Cameron's work through the lens of her legendary eccentricity. "They deserve our indignation," he fumed. "It is a cheap calu mny against a completely centered woman." [1] From there it seemed only a short leap to the argument that such a centered woman could produce nothing less than woman-centered art. Carol Mayor ecstatically rewrote Cameron's Madonnas as figures of female difference, proclaiming "I love Cameron's fallen Madonnas. They are altered images of Mother, scratched with sexuality and printed with flesh." [2] Carol Armstrong weighed in with a more measured and nuanced but no less impassioned reading of Cameron's maternalization of photography and its processes, "photography," as Armstrong would have it, "under the sway of the Mother, rather than the law of the Father." [3]

In 1998 Sylvia Wolf curated "Julia Margaret Cameron's Women," focusing with near exclusivity on the Victorian maidens that visited or worked for "Aunt Julia" at Freshwater, her estate on the Isle of Wight, and were drafted into service to play Mary Juliet or Ophelia before her camera. [4] (True, the magnificently bearded Taylor appears in a few images, but we are encouraged to see him as just another prop.) In his exhibition review Andy Grundberg declared Cameron's "women" so arresting as to make her "cast of heroic Victorian males ...seem irrelevant." [5] Armstrong, in turn, dryly lauded the "photographic gynarchy" produced by the "feminine idiosyncrasy" of Cameron's work and working methods, seeing the exhibition, to some degree, as a confirmation of her own take on Cameron. [6]

Of course, not everyone is happy about these current developments. Janet Malcolm was typically judicious, suggesting that while the performative aspects of Cameron's "fancy subject" pictures inspired by literary themes and allegorical subjects might be more appealing to postmodernist than modernist sensibilities, something was potentially lost in the feminist narrowing of curatorial attention to the women and the (by implication, equally feminist) censorship of the comical from the repertory of Cameron anecdotes. …

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