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Tag: Julia Margaret Cameron

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.



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…..]



We’ve been looking at iconic female photographers (Arbus, Sherman) in class and it seems time to turn to Sally Mann. Yet I feel tired of the standard questions about her family photographs. That’s their business. Browsing, however, I came across this self-portrait that astonished me. I am familiar with Mann’s wet collodion work, images she prints on large glass plates using the same early photographic techniques as Julia Margaret Cameron. But here was a photograph both like and unlike Cameron’s work: characteristically blurry and close-up, but also more obviously eerie and stark than Cameron’s portraits, despite the deep black backgrounds. The face is carved by light and looks up as if to the heavens. The eyes, though, are blank: white space where the self should be. That absence seems critical: where is the photographer’s eye here? Where is her private self? She displays her face as mask, her hand on the glass. The self-portrait would seem to be an egoist’s genre, but Mann avoids giving much away besides form and shadow. It is image as revelation, a new way to see and be seen.


Magic Hands

A show of Richard Avedon’s photographs opens today at the International Center for Photography. In its honor I went looking for some of his work to comment on, but I didn’t want it to be too obvious, like one of the best known fashion images or celebrity portraits. So here you go: Avedon himself in 1980. It’s a striking portrait of a man rarely in front of a camera, though fifty years ago Avedon told Truman Capote that

Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is, how would you say, well, the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may be simply my own.

What struck me first about this image was, of course, the waving, unfocussed hands. It reminds me, though obliquely, of a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron of Vivien and Merlin, the sorcerer (below). In it Cameron shows Vivien in the moment after casting a spell to “beguile” Merlin and immobilize him. Vivien’s hand is extended and her finger points. She is in the very act of making magic. Avedon, too, is in the very act of making magic, the creative transformation of reality into a frozen frame. His waving hands frame his own face, reinforcing the metaphor. In both cases the moving hands produce stillness through a kind of alchemy. Both photographers, too, seem to be insisting that photography is an art: it requires more than an eye and a camera; it is hand-made and original. Those are big claims for photography, especially when Cameron made them in the 1860s and 1870s. Stieglitz photographed Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands. Avedon photographed Isak Dinesen’s hands….Are all photographers obsessed with hands?  The hand provides the signature, one definition of individuality in our society.  We think of portraitists like Avedon and Cameron as defining selves by revealing faces, but here hands speak for the self too.  They defy our assumption that portraits should be “psychological.”