Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Bite 142: Julia Margaret Cameron - Julia Jackson, 1867

Julia Jackson, 1867,  albumen print, 30 x 24.6 cm

Julia Margaret Cameron’s expert use of light and shadow is ground-breaking. In this image of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece and Virginia Woolf’s mother, the figure is almost lost in darkness, light rimming her face and exquisitely defining a taut tendon on her neck, evidence of the sitters inner tenacity.

This is a widow facing life alone with strength. She has blinked during the exposure bringing a veiled quality to her eyes and reinforcing the impression of inner contemplation. Her tightly bound hair is just as expressive as the unkempt hair in The Echo or The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, conveying a potential for wild disarray.

She may not be facing the camera directly but she is very much a dynamic representation of the Victorian female - commanding in her beauty and strength.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bite 141: Julia Margaret Cameron - Mary Mother, c. 1866

Mary Mother, c. 1866,  albumen print, 34.9 x 27.1 cm
It is said that all photographs are in a way self-portraits and there is certainly an element of the autobiographical within Cameron’s oeuvre, a product perhaps of her status as (technically) an ‘amateur’ photographer in the sense that she was not bound by commercial interests or economic necessity. 
An example of this self-referentiality can be seen in Mary Mother. Pensively, she gazes absently out of the frame, the only indication of the role being played the robes around her neck and over her head; a substitute for the untamed hair in other Cameron images. 
We know without explanation that this is Mother Mary following Christ’s death. She is a woman in grief, sacred while at the same time individually human.
Modelled by Mary Hillier, a housemaid to Cameron and her favourite and most frequent model, (depicted separately as both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene), Cameron explains, “In every manner of form has her face been reproduced, yet never has it been felt that the grace of the fashion of it has perished.” 
In this image Hillier can actually be seen as a stand in for Cameron, who herself lost a child. The tenderness of the image betrays a deep understand of the suffering depicted.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Bite 140: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Echo, 1868

The Echo, 1868,  albumen print, 27 x 22.6 cm
“Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”
                                                                                 - Susan Sontag, On Photography
Part of what draws us to Julia Margaret Cameron’s images is that, coupled with the exquisite melancholy of her figures and the originality of her technique, is the knowledge that none of their subjects could be alive today. 
Considering the relative youth of the invention of photography this is a fairly recent development, and in the inevitable death of their subjects the conceptual cycle of her images is completed. 
This combination of the theme of mortality along with that of the photographically unique that-has-been adds profound theoretical interest to a modern reading of Cameron’s images. One of Cameron’s most haunting portraits in this respect is The Echo, modelled by the tragic actress Ellen Terry. 
With her particularly piecing yet absent gaze, and pale skin she almost resembles a corpse, the title referencing Greek mythology and perhaps also the inherently reflexive nature of the photographic medium.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Bite 139: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866

The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866,  albumen print, 36.5 x 28.6 cm
Julia Margaret Cameron’s aim was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and Beauty.” To attain the status of High Art it was necessary to depict classical and religious subject-matter but if she had achieved only this she would not appeal to a modern sensibility as she does. 
The power of her images comes directly from the fact that they are startling traces of those who have lived and stood before her camera; what Roland Barthes refers to as “that-has-been”. 
Take The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty as an example. Modelled by Cyllene Margaret Wilson, an orphan adopted by Cameron, the title refers to the Milton poem Allegro. The young girl looks out at the viewer with a direct yet softened stare, her hair tousled and stormy behind her, alternating light and dark. She is in transition, an adolescent moving from darkness into light, from girlhood to womanhood. 
Herschel praised the image, calling her, “Absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper to the air.” 
Alive she certainly was/is, and as the viewer stares her directly in the face the ambiguity of the image and its allegorical title charges the image with questions: “Who was this girl?” “What kind of life did she live?” “Was she happy?” These are questions that haunt the viewing of many of Cameron’s images and they are so strong only because we are before photographs – emanations of reality.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Bite 138: Julia Margaret Cameron - The Kiss of Peace, 1869

The Kiss of Peace, 1869,  albumen print,  34.3 x 27.7 cm
Julia Margaret Cameron's work can be seen as the first example in the history of art of a sustained photographic exploration of women by a woman. Nicole Cooley sees Cameron’s work as decidedly proto-feminist pointing out that “rather than portraying woman’s face as the object of the (male) gaze, Cameron invokes a secret, private world of women together, involved with one another.” Carol MacKay defines it as a “transpersonal” representation in which women represent both themselves and the concept of a higher “collective self.”

In the case of The Kiss of Peace she sees their gazes as providing “a sense of transpersonal dispersion.” Two girls are shown embracing, one laying her lips upon the forehead of the other. But in contradiction to the rather sentimental title she does not appear to be offering any sort of kiss, and the conveyance of the image is more one of melancholy than of a peaceful optimism. Together but alone the figures gaze, in traditional Cameron fashion, towards nothing, one looking up, the other down. 
In what MacKay refers to as “creative negativity” many of Cameron’s portraits, particularly those of women, convey a deep melancholy, a meditation on the plight and hardships of Victorian women. This psychological space, intimate and somewhat claustrophobic, can be seen as a reflection of Cameron’s own confined world, one in which inner creativity becomes a way of escaping imprisonment. 
Her exploration of the photographic medium is inextricably entwined with this transpersonal view of womanhood. The dichotomy of the divine and the human within her work is matched by the paradox of presenting both the personal – photographs of individual woman; and the transpersonal – woman depicted as allegories: metaphors for human (and often uniquely female) experiences.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Bite 137: Julia Margaret Cameron - Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867

Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867, Albumen print
Portraying a man with tenderness and compassion as opposed to lifting him up as a 'Man of Genius', Iago, Study from an Italian is an image unique within Julia Margaret Cameron’s work.

Strongly resembling Domenico Fetti’s painting of Christ with lowered eye, it is possible that Cameron avoided profanity by labelling it instead as the betrayer – more a Judas than a Christ – from Shakespeare’s Othello. But the image of Christ is nonetheless visible, albeit a gloomy or even sinister depiction of the Ecce Homo. As Mike Weaver asks, “Could we not have here a preposterous and beautiful attempt to depict Christ?”
Front-on and close-up, the role, modelled by Angelo Colarossi (probably the only paid professional model Cameron ever used), is portrayed with no props and only the hint of a dark robe. The long, wild hair frames the face along with a strong jaw showing several days of stubble. Even without showing the eyes Cameron again utilises the gaze, dark pits indicating an emotional intensity behind a stalwart exterior. 
The power in the portrait is more in what it withholds from the viewer than in what it gives away, which is decidedly very little. Yet the unmistakable feeling is one of suffering, deep sorrow and concentration. Somewhere between Christ and Judas, strong and fearful, alive and dead, this could perhaps be the most ambiguous image within a photographic project largely defined by ambiguity.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Bite 136: Julia Margaret Cameron - Thomas Carlyle, 1867

 Thomas Carlyle, 1867,  albumen print, 33.7 x 24.5 cm
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with a voice and memory and creative vigour."                      
                                                    – Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Julia Margaret Cameron’s dynamic portrait of Thomas Carlyle utilises ambiguity in technique to compelling affect in a portrait made up almost of only smudges and smears on the collodion glass surface streaked with the application of the light-sensitive coating. Yet the image portrays all the more feeling for this, his eyes, similarly to Herschel’s, vacant in contemplation – “staring eagerly into emptiness" - as Carol MacKay puts it, his bright white hair framing his profile, his head filling the frame, arresting the viewers’ attention. 
As with many of Cameron’s portraits the subject is given little context with a deep black surrounding the figure. Movement is evident in what must have been an exposure of several minutes, yet this only adds to the pure energy of the portrait. 
As Roger Fry points out, comparing Cameron to more recent portraitists, “The slight movements of the sitter gave a certain breadth and envelopment to the form and prevented those too instantaneous expressions which in modern photography so often have an air of caricature.” 
Cameron has not captured so much a likeness or a moment, as a manifestation of genius. Carlyle wrote that sitting for this portrait was an “inferno” and this is certainly evident in the resulting portrait, while Cameron described him paradoxically in her Annals as “almost the embodiment of a prayer,” recognising a transcendence which is present in this haunting image.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Bite 135: Julia Margaret Cameron - Sir John Herschel, 1867

Sir John Herschel, 1867,  albumen print,  34.9 x 26.1 cm
“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Sir John Herschel stares off, glassy eyed, to the right of the frame. What he is looking at is not important, instead it is clear that he is in a kind of meditation – “intently seeing beyond the immediate present” as Carol Hanbery MacKay puts it in her essay The Singular Double Vision of Julia Margaret Cameron.
His hair is wild under his set back beret indicating the mental action going on beneath the hat, which seems to be barely maintaining the activity within it. It is reported that Cameron washed and fluffed up his white hair before the shoot. For, “when I have had such men before my camera”, Cameron reports in her autobiographical fragment Annals of My Glass House from 1874, “my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.” 
Cameron waited several years for the opportunity to photograph her old friend Herschel, who had introduced her to the photographic process as early as 1839 – the year the Daguerrean invention was first revealed to the public in Paris by Louis-Francois Arago.
Highly affected by Herschel’s character and intellect she successfully translates this impact in one of her most famous images, effectively harnessing the narrative power of hair and the eyes, emotive elements focused on in many of Cameron’s portraits.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Bite 134: Briton Rivière - Beyond Man's Footsteps, 1894

Beyond Man's Footsteps, exhibited 1894, oil on canvas, 119 x 185 cm, Tate Britain
A lone polar bear peers toward the setting or rising sun. The tone, to me, indicates the end of a long day, the final rays of the sun illuminating a monolith of ice in deepest blue. The weary animal, beyond man's footsteps, seems almost human in pulling himself over the ice and reaching out to the western sky.

A romantic gesture on the sublime dominance of nature appears, through modern eyes, rather to hint at the fragility of the polar landscape and the environment in general. That even at the farthest reaches of the planet the impact of 'man's footsteps' is beginning to make itself felt.