Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A

I learned a few new things about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron at the preview of the exhibition of her photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum - which opened last week.

Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at V&A
View of the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition
There are currently two exhibitions about Cameron in the museums of South Kensington
Drawn entirely from the world-class National Photography Collection, the exhibition features the Herschel Album (1864), a sequence of 94 images which Cameron considered to be her finest work to date.Science Museum: Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy
If you're going to one I'd recommend you also see the other as well. (Although I personally diverted via the amazing ceramic collection on the 6th floor to the art of the Bauer Brothers - in the Images of Nature Gallery next door at the Natural History Museum).

However a number of the reviews listed at the end are by people who "did the double".

Things I learned about Cameron the photographer included:
  • she was a mother of six who took up photography at the age of 48
  • her first camera was a gift from her daughter and son in law
"It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater." 
  • 2015 marks 
    • the bicentenary of her birth in 1815
    • the 150th year since her first and only museum exhibition at the V&A in 1865
Within two years Cameron had sold and given her photographs to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and in 1868, the Museum granted her the use of two rooms as a portrait studio.
Henry Cole, Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1868 
© Royal Society of Art, London
  • She had a good relationship with Henry Cole, the Director of the South Kensington Museum 
  • She became the V&A's first artist in residence when she was granted use of two room within the precincts of the Museum to use as a portrait studio. Here she used to photograph people who lived in London
  • she was an innovator:
    • she pioneered the close up and close cropped portrait and, as a result, influenced the photographers of today
    • she created photographs which resembled paintings
    • she was the first photographer to take a photograph deliberately out of focus
  • she was also none too bothered about fingerprints on photographs!
  • she was a friend of a number of eminent Victorians - artists, thinkers and scientists.
I found one of the most difficult things with this exhibition was trying to keep in mind the difference between Cameron's own photographs and those of the typical Victorian photographer. I think I could have done with a bit of context to highlight the contrast in practice.

The exhibition is structured around four letters sent by Cameron to Cole and has four sections - which focus around:
  • her early aspirations and photographs
  • how she began to develop both confidence in portraiture and innovation in terms of techniques
  • the need to earn money from her photographs and in particular photographic portraits
  • an insight into her working methods
The exhibition includes groups of photographs around a particular theme

Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effects - covers a set of photographs which either strive to interpret paintings or otherwise employ some device for pictorial effect.

Circe, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
One of these was her Madonna Groups

The Madonna Groups
Fortune as well as fame - Cameron started out with the notion that she could make money from her photographs. Indeed one of the things which came across to me quite strongly in the exhibitions was that this was a woman who had an eye on every angle and wasn't above exploiting every connection she had.

This exhibition includes a number of large format portraits. Cameron counted a number of eminent Victorians as friends - the scientists Charles Darwin and Sir John Herschel; the painter G. F. Watts; the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (who was her neighbour at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight); and the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle. The exhibition includes the photographs she took of them

I personally liked her portraits much better than her 'arty' photographs.

Charles Darwin, Julia Margaret Cameron, 
1868, printed 1875
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Whisper of the Muse, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865 - a portrait of the painter GF Watts who Cameron considered to be her chief artistic inspiration.
Here he is receiving a whisper of inspiration
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Julia Jackson, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867
later Julia Stephen, Cameron's niece, her favourite subject, and the mother of the author Virginia Woolf
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The last section is devoted to "Her Mistakes or Her Successes" referencing the aspects of her technique which would have been mistakes in other people's eyes but which became an intrinsic part of her working approach. She used very careful lighting, soft focus and long exposures to make her photographs somehow seem more real.

This section also includes a recently discovered set of photographs which used to belong to GF Watts which show the flaws in her approach at the most extreme and also the outcomes of the technical challenge of working with potentially hazardous chemicals.

A set of "Defective Unmounted Impressions"
I also learned that the Victoria and Albert Museum was the first museum in the world to create a permanent collection of photographs - and to exhibit photographs as works of art.

It's certainly a Museum with a special place in the history of photography as a visual art.  This is the subject hub for photography at the V&A on the V&A website.

More information

Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world by Marta Weiss has been published to accompany the exhibition.
These are links to:

Other reviews

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