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Category: nineteenth century

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]


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!

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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





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.



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] 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.


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!]


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…..]


Close Quarters

Thomas Annan, "Close no.11, Bridgegate, Glasgow," 1897.

Thomas Annan is best known for documenting slum conditions in Glasgow at the end of the nineteenth century. His photographs of the “closes” of the old city show the growing population, displaced from living on the land and recruited into factory work, squeezed into a new urban landscape. The buildings are literally close and Annan draws on perspective to emphasize the narrowing retreat of these alleys into dead-end space. Brick walls appear to emerge organically from flagstones and reach toward the light, which often seems to be elsewhere. Here, the rectangular unit of the brick is repeated everywhere: the shadowed entry in the left foreground, the peeling wood plank on the right, the windows in the building high above and far behind, and finally the apotheosis of light on the back wall. That lit wall makes a beautiful pairing with the bleak, empty doorway up front, lessening the harsh effect of the image.  The stripe of light that bisects the composition is broken, but it does enter the frame.

This image is unusual for having a figure in it. The person provides a focal point for the dizzying, grid-like composition of bricks. She becomes a living scale by which to judge the size of this social problem. The cage-like impression of her habitat is underlined by the wooden door frame in the foreground, making it seem as if she is somehow indoors, as if we are outside looking in to her domain. Which of course we are — and so is Annan. Unless we are inside and she is the one looking in? The door frame, like the photograph itself, reveals her to be both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. The intersecting lines, angles, and light make meaning much less stable than it seems.