The Victorian Gaze

Julia Margaret Cameron
From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

This exhibition of photographs from an important English photographer continued the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s revisiting of the history of photography, following from ‘The Photograph and Australia’ in June 2015. 

The Victorian era was at once a time of remarkable innovation and of stultifying convention. The story of Julia Margaret Cameron, how she came to photography and became a founding figure of the medium, is a very Victorian one, indelibly stained by the prejudices concerning class and sex, and the real-world opportunities and constraints that shaped the world of taste and culture at the time.

A mother of six in her late forties when she first took up photography seriously, Cameron specialised in a style of photographing which was ahead of her time. She explored the representation of pathos and other affects through the lens, while others were still stuck on the ability of the photograph to record a likeness. Her soft-focus pensive portraits of faces made it possible to imagine the photograph as adding something more to portraiture than mere likeness, and something uniquely photographic. 

Through her high contrast lighting and careful posing of her subjects, she was able to make pictures that captured an uncanny sense of character and personality. Cameron produced an effect of intimacy between subject and viewer, perhaps in the greater informality of the photograph over the painting, and perhaps also because she mostly photographed people she knew and loved, which allowed something of that familiarity to enter the frame.

Her 1867 portrait of Julia Jackson, her niece and mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, is one of the best. It captures a tangible sense of the woman’s gaze—‘as we might imagine a portrait of the soul or of a psychic state laid bare’, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue put it. And Cameron’s photograph expresses something of Woolf’s character Mrs Ramsay, for whom Julia Jackson was the model—‘she bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered’, as Woolf described her in To The Lighthouse.

It is impossible to separate the wellborn connections of Cameron from her art, since they mark the portraits—many which were of celebrities of her time—providing the privileged access that photographs of the rich and famous give us to this day. It is just as impossible to leave aside the mores of the period in which she lived, and the exigencies of an upper class life: she photographed ‘improving’ religious and pre-Raphaelite subjects in order to capture the attentions of a certain taste, and to sell work to finance her sons’ education at boarding schools like Charter House. 

She was frank about it, the need to make her art pay professionally, but it could on no account become commercial like the many studios that popularly photographed people for a sum at the time. It is thanks to her determined positioning of her work as artistic that it has survived so well; her images were some of the earliest collected photographs in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, purchased by Henry Cole, Director of the South Kensington Museum (as it then was), who was a friend and supporter.

The portraits have stood the test of time; the tableaux in the Pre-Raphaelite style, or ‘fancy subjects’ as she herself referred to them, are regarded more equivocally. It is unlikely that these images were composed in a spirit of irony, although they may address the practice of the photographic studios of the era, which was making the photograph popular and ubiquitous. They also address the domestic pleasures to be had from amateur theatrics, but that reference proved unconvincing even then; unkind comments such as ‘the staple of her subjects are a lady in night habiliments with a couple of children in a state of nudity’, mock this common or garden classicism, and the pretension of dress-ups and parlour games.

Perhaps these images miss the mark, but they risk bringing down the edifice of Taste with them—why, for example, was the meticulous rendering of imagined classical scenes in paint considered the province of art? Cameron was not an iconoclast, but she was part of the great re-evaluation that was forced on aspirations for life-like rendition by the advent of the photograph. 

When photography worked out how to go beyond recording, it moved in another direction, accentuating the real and the gaze. So Cindy Sherman takes up the practice of dressing up more than a century later, to critique the genres of artistic and popular image. It seems certain that Cameron’s work is in mind, particularly because of the inflection of the woman as art/artist in Sherman’s series.

In the accounts now given of Cameron’s life and work, the critics seem unable to escape a certain tone. Cameron is not presented as an art photographer like masculine icons of the medium; her reputation remains clouded by a scepticism concerning ‘slovenly’ technique and her ‘lady amateur’ status. In making herself an artist, Cameron experienced incredulity from both directions in her time—that of the lack of credibility of photography as art, and the lack of credibility of a woman as an artist. 

When added to this the taint of the colonial—she was born in India and returned with her husband to Ceylon in her final years to supervise the family estates, cutting short her art career—it is remarkable that her practice held together as an oeuvre at all. It was lucky that she was such an unabashed promoter of her own work since no one else was convinced to do it for her.

But she has become influential, despite the obstacles then and now that stand in the way of recognition. The effect she saw possible in the photographic was one that many more modern art photographers have been drawn to, the uniting of the literal with the metaphysical. This intuition is intensified in the many ways the process itself called attention to the artifice of reality in her work, the so-called ‘mistakes and accidents’ that appeared to charm Cameron. 

Streaks, scratches, spotting and waviness, although imperfections in the materials and processes, heighten the wonder of the realism that can emerge in the photograph when stars align. Perfect technique would not have represented this aura nearly so well. And the values of transience and imperfection that are recorded, along with the testament of faces and forms, give expression to Victorian metaphysical melancholy—consciousness of the leveller of death and the compromising habits of fortune.

It is as though the powerful hypocrisies of the time were best expressed as photographs; not quite art and not what they seem, the pretensions of art paralleling the social pretensions of the period. Cameron’s work, seen together in this way courtesy of the V&A, produces a striking impression of a photographer pursuing a project as determined as Eugène Atget or Gustave Le Gray, as well as a sure sense of the historical significance of it.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Julia Jackson, 1867. Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative, 27.4 x 20.6cm. Courtesy and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, 1872. Courtesy and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait of Herschel, 1867. Courtesy and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Vivien and Merlin from illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, 1874. Courtesy and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.