Skip to content

Category: nineteenth century

The Fantastic Four: Victorian Photography in London

Hawarden
Clementina Hawarden, “Clementina Maude and Isabella Grace,” 1861. Wikimedia Commons.

The “Victorian Giants” show now at National Portrait Gallery in London through May 20th begins with a small room where each wall introduces one of the four photographers in the show: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Clementina Hawarden, and Oscar Rejlander. This feels auspicious — they face each other in some interesting way that will be revealed or complicated, presumably, and they are equal like a square. There’s a welcome symmetry to this composition of two men and two women (I’m writing this during the week that the UK grapples with the mandatory reporting of gender equity in pay to men vs. women. The national average favors men by 17-18% and it seems likely that the NPG chose equal representation intentionally as equity in art history isn’t a given, which wikipedia edit-a-thons aim to address.)

But it’s not clear what the exhibit wants to make of the foursome, especially since they are not actually “equal.” Rejlander is probably the least known of the four but the exhibit makes him seem like the central figure because he was the only one who interacted with all of the others both personally and professionally. Carroll and Cameron also interacted (and disparaged each other’s work, though the exhibit doesn’t mention that). But, surprisingly, Cameron and Hawarden had no known direct connection, despite exhibiting in the same organizations and circulating in the same aesthetic and aristocratic circles. What to make of this? Nothing, apparently, because it’s not even mentioned in the show. In general, this exhibit emphasizes sameness over differences, connections over gaps, which is predictable but disappointing. There are other stories to tell, or at least questions to ask here. Rejlander, Cameron, and Carroll often collected each other’s photographs in albums and the attributions of who made which image are often hard to pin down — and then switch back and forth. That would have been interesting to examine: how do you know who made what image? And even more surprisingly, why might it matter?

Cameron's portrait of Herschel
Julia Margaret Cameron, “Sir John Herschel with Cap,” 1867. Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to deny that the connections aren’t often interesting and fruitful. It’s nice to see some groupings around the same model (for example, Tennyson portraits by Rejlander and Cameron side by side) but what does that suggest? These photographers knew the same people and lived at the same time: why wouldn’t their work be similar? What instead, maybe, to make of their differences? The women, especially, were particularly artful in their compositions — neither pretended to make conventional studio portraits. Cameron got so close to her subjects that their faces completely fill the frame, even sacrificing focus for intimacy. Hawarden posed her daughters in deshabille, leaning against walls and mirrors in carefully composed tableaux. Whereas both Rejlander and Carroll were interested in representing specific people, Cameron and Hawarden were more concerned with symbolic representation of ideas and characters. Inevitably, male and female artists’ portrayals of bodies are “read” differently too and the eroticism of these images is dealt with here in an oddly prim and defensive way, especially with the men: Carroll, we’re told, never photographed Alice nude and “nearly always” had adult chaperones during the sittings. Rejlander, we’re assured, took nude portraits of women purely as anatomical studies for artists. The exhibit’s patroness, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, emphasizes the innocence of childhood in her commentary on the images.

Rejlander’s Tennyson Family.
Oscar Rejlander, “Alfred and Emily Tennyson with their sons at Farringford,” 1862. Wikimedia Commons.

There are curious gaps too: Rejlanders’ best known image of Tennyson is probably the sun-lit family grouping outdoors, with the parents and two sons all holding hands. It’s a rare outdoor image and much reproduced as evidence of their idyllic life at Farringford. Nor does the show reproduce the images Rejlander and Cameron were presumed to have collaborated on at her home on the Isle of Wight in 1863: where Cameron and her maids posed outside her door for narrative scenes with titles like “Greeting the Post” or “Maids at the Well.” These photos were part of a bigger narrative about Cameron’s transformation from colonial matron into art photographer: she was given a camera and took “her first lessons” from professionals like Rejlander (as the wall text asserts). That sounds a little too much like the old speculation about “who taught Julia how to use a camera?,” which has been complicated by research into her friendship with the scientist Sir John Herschel, who experimented with photographic chemicals in the 1840s, and her years of composing private photo albums for her sisters. Cameron’s famous portrait of Herschel is in the show but the exhibit’s suggestion that Cameron was “trained in part” by Rejlander makes those images (that weren’t shown) seem less of an equal partnership. I wrote a biography of Cameron fifteen years ago that grappled with that sturdy myth and maybe I’m over-sensitive to it. But as a biographer I was also put off from the start by the huge introductory wall text that said “BORN IN CEYLON (NOW SRI LANKA), JULIA MARGARET CAMERON…”.  And that’s just plain wrong. She was born in Calcutta and died in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). (All the wall text and captions can be downloaded from the NPG website here.)

Carroll’s “Alice as Beggar Maid”
Lewis Carroll, “Alice Liddell as Beggar Maid,” 1858. Wikimedia Commons.

So I value any exhibition of Cameron’s work, or Victorian photography, and the best treat in the show was simply viewing Rejlander’s private photograph album (seventy-one prints collected from 1856-1866, now in the NPG’s own collection) which has been digitized to scan through. But overall this exhibition was a missed opportunity. The influences between these four “giants” (code for that favorite Victorian word, “genius”?) could have been more complicated: less biographical, less gendered, less one-directional. Still, you do get to see the images in person and at scale.

Here is one of my favorites, Cameron’s portrait of Carroll’s famous Alice Liddell, grown up and looking back at us through the looking glass. The exhibit displayed a variant, called “Alethea,” in which Liddell is in profile instead.

Pomona
Julia Margaret Cameron, “Pomona” (Alice Liddell), 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

Compare Cameron’s Alice to Carroll’s, from fourteen years earlier. The gesture, the background, even the bold gaze back at the viewer, all suggest that Cameron knew Carroll’s photo and was consciously re-viewing it. Where Carroll called his “Alice as Beggar Maid,” Cameron’s revision associates Alice with Greek deities of truth and fertility. These are the sort of overlapping symmetries and asymmetries (of representation and power) that could have been explored in more depth.

 

Share

Victoria Amongst the Victorians

Angel of the Nativity; Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815 - 1879); Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England; 1872; Albumen silver print; 32.9 x 24.3 cm (12 15/16 x 9 9/16 in.); 84.XM.443.3
Angel of the Nativity by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872; albumen silver print.

Just back from London, where I saw the new Julia Margaret Cameron retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum— it’s a big show for the 200th anniversary of Cameron’s birth and it focusses on her relationship with what became the V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) and its founder Henry Cole. The V&A was one of the first museums to collect photographs and Cameron’s work was amongst their first acquisitions. Using letters from their collection as well as the photos themselves, curator Marta Weiss makes a great case that Cameron’s so-called “sloppy” technique was due at least in part to her habit of sending her artist-mentor-friends imperfect prints so she could save the better ones to sell. Unfortunately for her, those seconds given to her famous friends (like painter G.F. Watts and astronomer J.F.W.H. Herschel, whose album of Cameron photos is now on display at the Science Museum) ended up in museum collections all over the world — which gave an unrepresentative view of her work. That is not to say that Cameron never exhibited or sold photographs that her contemporaries considered flawed: the soft-focus edges and smeary lines of the “Angel of the Nativity” photo shown here demonstrate how her style emphasized artful composition and emotional effect over technical precision. But this exhibit provides some much-needed context for all the controversy about Cameron’s technique, which inevitably was gendered around her status as an early woman photographer. The catalogue to the show also breaks down the usual linear chronology of her work to organize it around the five surviving letters Cameron wrote to Cole. All in all, the exhibit provides a striking new look at an old “mistress,” to quote a now-old term by art historian Griselda Pollock….

[I’m grateful to the V&A staff who invited me to give a Works in Progress talk there. I uploaded a PDF version of my slides here: Jane and Julia]

Share

NEW Cameron Interview!

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kirsty Stonell Walker, biographer of Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth, on her blog The Kissed Mouth. Our conversation about Julia Margaret Cameron and my middle-grade novel Word Blind  is posted here. Thanks, Kirsty!

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 1.48.05 PM

This is a good time to announce that Word Blind is now out on several new ebook platforms. If you’ve read it please consider posting reviews on any of these pages!

Barnes and Noble

iBooks

Kobo

Scribd

Oyster

Page Foundry

COMING SOON: Open Letters Monthly article on the Romance Writers of American convention and the ebook of my biography From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.

 

Share

Two Worlds

Here’s a strange contrast: this weekend I watched Jane Eyre (directed by Cary Fukunaga, 2011) and Elysium (directed by Neill Blomkamp, 2013). Elysium is explicitly about two worlds — one for the haves and one for the have nots– but that idea was first popularized by  the Victorians, so maybe that can be the point of comparison to bring these two seemingly unrelated films together. I often find film adaptations of Victorian novels to be unconvincing. Either they sentimentalize or they exagerrate. This Jane Eyre was persuasive though, in part because of Mia Wasikowska, who played Jane with understated emotion. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane is a volcano, with all the emotion suppressed by long habit and self denial. The novel begins with a scene of child Jane erupting into fury at an injustice done her. The film reorders the events and begins with a distraught and wild-looking adult Jane stumbling through a rain storm. Although the film scene emphasizes Jane’s distress over her anger, the revision works because it still introduces us quickly to Jane’s real, volatile self and then proceeds to flash back to the causes of her upset. Similarly, listening to Jane’s conversation with Edward Rochester (also well played without exagerration by Michael Fassbender) in the clip above we can well imagine why he fell in love with her, despite the social status and other obstacles that should have prevented it. No one could have ever spoken to him in that clear, honest voice before. Jane tells the truth, and it makes her free. In extreme contrast, here is a scene from another world, Earth 2154, where regular dirty ethnic people live while shiny clean white people hover above them on an exclusive satellite called Elysium. Here is a clip of a typical fight sequence: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dk_wRj64aes] The use of slow motion and silence to punctuate the action works well, but it’s still just a well executed battle. The film’s art direction was just as wonderful as in Blomkamp’s District 9: the same cluttered frames overflowing with trash and graffiti tags. This earth is sterile, but Elysium, in its white cleanliness, is eerily empty. Matt Damon, as our proletarian hero Max, is as likeable as ever, but Jodie Foster as the cold-hearted politician is surprisingly wooden. The flaws in the screenplay are most evident in her stilted dialogue, and she makes even paradise seem unappealing. For stories of social transformation, I’ll take the Victorians, and for worlds, I’ll stick with Earth.

Share

Back to Atlantic City

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has a penchant for killing off popular and likeable characters and we lost both the good (Owen Slater and Billie Kent) and the bad (Gillian Darmity and Gyp Rossetti) in season 3. [Surprise! She’s back!]

o-BOARDWALK-EMPIRE-SEASON-4-570

For season 4 the publicity machine is already promoting new characters played by Jeffrey Wright, Ron Livingston, and Patricia Arquette. But what caught my attention the most in the media flurry leading up to Sunday’s new season premiere were the beautiful photographs made to resemble the wet collodion process from the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1920s the process was already out of date, historically, but these sepia-colored posters with their faded images, uneven tone, and visible scratchs give a wonderful sense of the period anyway. They evoke the WANTED posters of the old West, appropriately enough, but also the full-frontal portrait styles of daguerreotypes and tintypes. Labelled by hand, the images look torn from a family album — reminding us, perhaps, of how intimately we know these characters now.

[For another version of this photographic style and process, see the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibit now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January…..]

Share