Sunday, November 24, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron

I did go back to the Metropolitan Museum to see several more shows but the one that I found most compelling was “Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron”.  She was given her first camera in December of 1863 when she was 48 years old.  She had just moved to the Isle of Wight and for Christmas her daughter and son-in-law gave her the camera, with a note saying, “It may amuse you mother to try to photograph during your solitude in Freshwater”.  Cameron died in 1879 and in less that 2 decades changed photography forever.

The exhibition starts out with rather cold and antiseptic portraits by other photographers working at the start of Cameron’s career.   Of course, nothing else was expected at hat time in a photographic image which was expected to only copy what was before the lens.  Cameron, however, found character in her images so that you did not just see the features of the sitter but had some insight into the person, or the character they were portraying.  She said that it was quite by accident that she discovered the technique of not having the subject in perfect focus.  She found, however, that it added to the atmosphere of the photograph and the character of the sitter.  To her opponents, who believed the old way was better, it just meant that her technique was sloppy.

The prints are all albumen silver prints made from glass negatives.  All the images in the exhibition are from the Metropolitan Museum’s Collection and the illustrations for this Missive have been supplied by the Museum.

Cameron was born and lived much of her life in India but, her mother being French, she was educated in France.  She married Charles Hay Cameron, a member of the Law Commission stationed in Calcutta.  Later in their marriage he served as a model for some of her images.  Cameron did not accept commissions but she chose her own subjects, often poets, painters and scientists of the day.  I believe in some cases she picked a subject because she felt she could capture the character of the sitter with a single image. 

“King Lear allotting his Kingdom to his 3 Daughters”, [1872, Bequest of Maurice B, Sendak].  The characters were “played” by the Liddell sisters posing with Cameron’s own husband as King Lear.  For whatever reason I found this one of the most enticing of photographs.  The father figure in this image from Shakespeare’s play is certainly in his dotage and desperate to do the right thing is being seduced by the flattery of two of his daughters while looking at the third who is the picture of innocence.

Shown near the King Lear image is one entitled “Daughters of Jerusalem”, [1865, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund 1941].  The bible text says, “But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”  To me anyway, it seems that the picture was taken right after they have wiped their tears and are trying to compose themselves.  They are oh, so sad.

Cameron was commissioned to do a portrait for the British Nation of Sir John Herschel [April, 1867, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Robert Rosenkranz Gift] who was Victorian England’s preeminent scientist.  She had admired him since she was very young and they had been friends for over 30 years.  He chose the one illustrated here from a small selection of 4 images. The Met displays 3 of these including the one that he favored because he felt it portrayed him as the “Pater Familias”.  Photography was a slow and cumbersome process in those early days and a photographer took relatively few images, not like today when you will find rows of contact sheets to choose from.

Religious themes have been among of the basic subjects of artists throughout time. There is a famous image by Raphael of the Madonna and Child that has been mimicked by many artists.  It is the tondo called “Madonna della Sedia” of 1518 in the Pitti Palace in Florence.   We own a photograph of 1911 by Lewis Hine called, “The Madonna of the Tenements” and Cameron did her own version many years before in a photo called “La Madonna Riposata/Resting in Hope”, [1864, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund].  Conveying the emotional relationship between the Virgin, Christ Child and St. John has always been a crowd pleaser!

The Curator of the exhibition is Malcolm Daniel and he has done a masterful job of demonstrating  the talent of Julia Margaret Cameron aided, of course, by the Metropolitan’s incredible collection.

We are always saying that an image in a book or catalog cannot be a substitute for the real thing and in photography it is truer than in the other arts.  We accept that a photo will not be like the painting or drawing but in photography you have even a greater challenge.  Any substitute is a mere mirage of the original.  The exhibition will be up at the Met until January 5, 2014 so give yourselves a Christmas treat and pay a visit.  Let me know which image is your favorite.  It is a difficult choice!

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