Julia Margaret Cameron: from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The nineteenth century saw a revolution in artistic representation and social philosophies, particularly in the field of photography. Images were remarkable for their strong compositions and expressive qualities, especially in portraits of women and children; their style is characteristically self-aware and allegorical.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) presents ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’, a comprehensive survey of work showing over 100 photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s extensive collection, select photographs from Australian institutions as well as a series of letters, tracing the short but prolific career of this renowned nineteenth century British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).

Judy Annear, Senior Curator of Photographs at AGNSW, says Cameron’s contribution to photography was significant, “Using the camera to convey both tenderness and strength, Cameron introduced an emotive sensibility to early photographic portraiture. At the time, her work was controversial and her unconventional techniques attracted both praise and criticism.”

Julia Margaret Cameron received her first camera in December 1863 as a gift from her daughter Julia. Cameron was forty-eight, yet she embraced the medium quickly. Blending an unorthodox technique, a spiritual sensibility, and a Pre- Raphaelite–inflected aesthetic, Cameron created vivid portraits that memorialised the intellectual and artistic elite of Victorian England – scientists Charles Darwin and Sir John Herschel, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, artist GF Watts, poets Robert Browning and Henry Taylor, and Cameron’s niece, Julia Jackson.

To this respected class of individuals Cameron added domestic and familial figures; housemaids and local children enlisted as cherubs and Madonna and Child figures in photographic tableaux that reenact emblematic scenes derived from biblical, mythological and literary narratives. Isobel Parker Philip, Assistant Curator of Photography at AGNSW, says of Cameron’s work, “Carefully coded symbolic references and props are strewn throughout the mise-en-scène and different compositional strategies are employed. Groups and paired figures interact performatively within the tightly cropped frame, their staged poses fulfilling narrative schemes.”

Although praised by her Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, others condemned Cameron’s craftsmanship, labeling it ‘careless’. Cameron however embraced imperfection, leaving fingerprints, streak marks and swirls of collodion on her negatives, she purposely avoided the perfect resolution and minute detail that glass negatives permitted. Instead she embraced carefully directed light, an understanding of chiaroscuro, soft focus, and shallow depth of field along with long exposures that allowed the slight movement of her subjects to register in her pictures, instilling them with an uncommon sense of intimacy and vitality without jeopardising their formality.

“With their faces isolated through tight framing and surrounded by amorphous backgrounds, these figures appear to levitate as if suspended in darkness,” says Philip. “Cloaked in shadow, they become monumental while the subtleties of their facial expressions assume an emotive cadence.”

Cameron’s idiosyncratic approach to the medium and her pioneering use of unconventional techniques has defined the painterly tone of her aesthetic signature. Her ability to imbue her photographs with a powerful spiritual content, the quality that separates them from the products of commercial portrait studios of her time has secured her work’s enduring legacy.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 25 October, 2015

Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, 1872

Whisper of the Muse, 1865

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London