Magazine article Artforum International

"Julia Margaret Cameron's Women."

Magazine article Artforum International

"Julia Margaret Cameron's Women."

Article excerpt


The exhibition "Julia Margaret Cameron's Women" could be faulted for the exclusivity of its focus on the female sex. It is true that Cameron portrayed the men of mark of her day: Carlyle and Tennyson, Darwin and Herschel, Watts and Rossetti number among her pantheon of patriarchs. Thus, it is also true that in the absence of those bearded eminences, the sheer worldly ambition that drove her to photograph is not conveyed as well as it might be.

On the other hand, women were the main object of Cameron's eccentric zeal, and the exhibition, curated by Sylvia Wolf of the Art Institute, conveys that admirably. Beards may be largely absent, but flowing tresses cascade here, there, and everywhere, crammed onto every possible partition and every available surface: and so the utter excess of Cameron's dedication to the topic of Woman comes across in spades. More gender balance would have subtracted from that effect, which would have been a greater misrepresentation. For as much as Cameron's photography ran on ambition, so it was fueled by immoderation. Which is to say that her unruliness was a matter not of subversion, rebellion, or refusal but of the intemperateness of her embrace of "femininity."

Cameron was not alone in her obsession with maids and Madonnas. One need only think of Rossetti's repetition compulsion in this regard. Or Lewis Carroll and all his little girls, surely no more than an extreme version of patriarchy's taste for the maiden. What set Cameron apart was the peculiarity of her devotion to photography, the "tender ardor" with which she inscribed her work, with its hallmark abandonment to the aleatory processes of light, lens adjustment, and collodion chemistry, its elision of the distinction between imagination and reality, and its embrace of the domestic framework of house and family, family albums, and home theatricals.

Over and over again Cameron emphasized the distaff side. That included children, and children who grew to be women, such as Lewis Carroll's favorite muse, Alice Liddell, photographed twice by Cameron, still with her wild-child gaze and the blunt-cut bangs of her childhood, but now with her body grown and her hair grown out. Both the profile cameo and the frontal view, taken in 1872 when Liddell was twenty years old, fourteen years after Carroll had first photographed her, are in the exhibition. Cameron's photographs repeat Carroll's almost exactly, charting what Carroll wished to stave off: the changes in Liddell's face and body over time, the fact of her not staying forever and ever the same, except in the photographs that fix her perennially against their walls of foliage.

Cameron photographed other women who were not of her family, such as Marie Spartali, painter and Pre-Raphaelite model. But where her portraits of great men open up to a wider world, her photographs of women tend to dose in on her own family, staff, and neighborhood. The most photographed person in Cameron's household was her parlormaid Mary Hillier, to whom an entire wall of the exhibition is devoted. Because of who she was, Hillier indexes the domesticity that was the founding condition of Cameron's practice: the converting of a chicken hut into a glass house, laundering into photograph developing, dinner-table hospitality into exhibition opportunities, maids, children, and neighbors into models. …

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