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Category: portraiture

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]

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Ordinary Space

Alec Soth, "New Orleans, LA," 2002.

The exhibit From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until January 2, features over a hundred photographs of ordinary, eccentric Americans from all over the country. But this is the one that grabbed me. I love how understated it is, especially next to its neighbors, the large-format men and women staring straight at the camera. This subject, and this photograph, is more discreet: this woman looks back at us through layers of paint and film. The receding squares frame her for us, but she is off center and at an angle. Light pours in, but it is diffuse and falls as brightly on the floor as on the portrait. The woman herself couldn’t be more ordinary, yet there are cues to a certain expansiveness.  Her styled hair, the fancy chair, the blue wall all suggest a comfortable life, despite the emptiness of the room. This space is perhaps her self-portrait, plain but enigmatic in its ordinariness. Soth once remarked that he is interested in “the space between the subject and myself”: that space is beautifully crafted here.

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Back in Fashion

Lillian Bassman, "Across the Restaurant."

In honor of fashion week, I present Lillian Bassman, living legend. Bassman photographed fashion for Harper’s Bazaar and mentored Richard Avedon. Yet her work is more self-consciously artistic than most fashion photography and it fell out of favor after the 1960s. She left the field and threw away her negatives, but they were rediscovered to great acclaim in the 1990s. It’s a great story, and her images back it up.

This one is typical of Bassman’s artistry. Look at how she uses light and shadow to draw our eyes along the white diagonal of the arm. That arm is impossibly long and elegant, extending to the corner of the frame with the languid grace of a ballet dancer. The line should end with her face, so her turned head seems coy or cool. Her neck arches away as if in dismissal. The clutter of the tables in foreground and background do not detract from the formal elegance of the composition. Indeed, they anchor in the reality of a modern restaurant what would otherwise seem wholly artificial. It’s a confident photograph of a confident woman.

Bassman said that “Elegance goes back to the earliest paintings. Long necks. The thrust of the head in a certain position.” This image supports her claim: it is a mannerist painting, a pre-Raphaelite study, a John Singer Sargent portrait. The clothes are outdone.

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The Dancer and the Dance

Imogen Cunningham, "Martha Graham, 1931."

The last post got me thinking about how one art represents another — as in photographs of musicians there or photographs of dancers here. In this case photography seems to submit to dance: the lighting that may have been artistically manipulated instead looks like simple stage lighting. Graham doesn’t look “posed” by Cunningham, but rather in character for her choreography. Graham fills, and even exceeds, all the available space.

Yet the strong lighting on that upturned face and forceful hands is the photograph itself; it is really a shared spotlight for both women. In an interview Cunningham said that women are easier to photograph because you can “do” more to them. She noted that not every subject can inspire a great portrait. This portrait seems pared down to essentials, and in Graham Cunningham found a model overflowing with sheer vitality.  Both photographer and dancer are on beautiful display in this image, but somewhat obscured as well.  With her eyes closed, Graham seems to deny us some part of herself — just as Cunningham reduces her technique until it seems almost invisible.

The audio interview with Cunningham that I refer to is posted on MoMA’s website.

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Black and White and Read All Over

I’ve been reading, and writing, about characters set against backdrops of texts, and here is a wonderful visual example of that juxtaposition. Photographer Carl Van Vechten often took portraits against geometric backgrounds, which creates a complex formal composition. It seems to set human variety within a grid of some kind.

Here the grid is especially interesting because it too is man made, or written. Yet Van Vechten disrupts our expectations that culture will be predictable and regular by making the words all aslant and senseless.  Against that background of torn posters and mangled phrases stands another photographer, surrealist Man Ray, also at an angle. The effect is disorienting in the best way — Ray’s tie appears to hang sideways, disturbing gravity; the words appear to climb and fall. Van Vechten, best known for his portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures, was both an artist and author himself. This photograph seems his attempt to be both at once: both writer of image and photographer of text. It particularly suits Man Ray’s own art of surprising juxtapositions. The artist here, conventional in shirt and tie and profile, also borders on the absurd–as if that black and white frame can’t quite contain him.

To see more photographs by Van Vechten check out the Library of Congress’ collection.

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