Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Photography of Julia Margaret Cameron

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Photography of Julia Margaret Cameron

Article excerpt

Ruskin dismissed Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs as untrue. But, argues Martin Gayford, the same could be said of any picture

One day Julia Margaret Cameron was showing John Ruskin a portfolio of her photographic portraits. The critic grew more and more impatient until he came to a study of the scientist Sir John Herschel in which the subject's hair stood up 'like a halo of fireworks'. At this point, Ruskin slammed the portfolio shut and Cameron thumped him violently on the back, exclaiming, 'John Ruskin, you are not worthy of photographs!' He was indeed smackingly wrong to dismiss her work, as visitors to an exhibition at the V&A celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth will be able to see for themselves.

There are multiple ironies underlying this spat (they happily made up by lunchtime). Ruskin disapproved -- officially speaking, at least -- of photography. Discoursing on the popular belief that 'the camera cannot lie', he remarked that photographs were true in a sense. 'But this truth of mere transcript has nothing to do with Art properly so called; and will never supersede it.'

A complication is that Ruskin himself had collected hundreds of daguerreotypes of landscape and architectural subjects, often collaborating closely with the photographers who had taken them. Some of these very closely resembled his own watercolour drawings. There was a further paradox. In a way his complaint about Julia Margaret Cameron's pictures was that they had too much to do with art, but not the variety he favoured.

Ruskin admired the close-focus style of Pre-Raphaelites such as Millais -- which was in turn heavily influenced by photography -- and painted in that manner himself. Cameron, however, reflected an entirely different kind of painting. Dante Gabriel Rossetti -- an astute observer if a bad speller -- put his finger on just what that was when he thanked her for 'the most beautiful photograph' she had sent him, adding, 'It is like a Lionardo.'

That was a bull's eye. Cameron often consciously imitated High Renaissance painting, posing youthful friends and relations in the attitude of angels by Raphael or a Michelangelo sibyl. Years later, one of her models recalled, 'No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over the imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful; this was how we felt.'

The anxiety was created partly by Cameron's commanding personality -- 'a terrifying elderly woman', according to the same witness, 'with plump eager face and piercing eyes'. It was also the product of the long exposures Cameron favoured (up to four minutes of motionlessness for the sitter). These, in turn, take us back to Leonardo because she -- like the Italian master -- understood the crucial importance of lighting.

All she required as a studio, Cameron wrote, was a room 'capable of having all light excluded except one window', and that she would drape with yellow calico. Exposure times were lengthy in the early days of photography, causing some practitioners to fix their sitters' heads in clamps to prevent them moving. Restricting the illumination lengthened the duration even further. But in conjunction with Cameron's tendency to take her pictures slightly out of focus this procedure created a wonderful softness. It was indeed the photographic equivalent to Leonardo's sfumato , defined by the master himself as 'without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke'.

Clearly, the works of Julia Margaret Cameron were not 'true' in the sense that Ruskin discussed. …

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