I was pleased to be able to visit the Influence and Intimacy exhibition during the Alec Soth OCA study visit in January. The posters and press ads of ‘Iago’ and Viriginia Woolf’s mother had caught my eye long ago and it was a treat to be able to immerse in this properly.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), as the show blurb tells us, used technical limitations and faults to harness the photograph’s power. She aimed to make pleasing pictures “to startle the eye with wonder and delight”.
It is strange that even though I only became aware of this photographer less than a year ago, her work already looks clichéd to me. It may just be that it is so distinctive. Much of the work draws on the pictorial language of Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite art, which is like a sugary snack – immediately appealing but quickly becomes too much to stomach. One can only be bothered with a small number of adorable cupids and angels.
Cameron is generally considered to be one of the pioneers of photography in the sense that she helped to establish it as an art form. We discover that the painter GF Watts encouraged Cameron to “view herself not merely as a copyist of reality but as an artist harnessing photography’s expressive power.”
The exhibition made reference to the fact that there was a suggestion at the time of Cameron having a congenital problem with her eyesight leading to the lack of focus but this idea seems to have been largely dismissed. Luckily, despite much criticism at the time, she carried on regardless: “What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is legitimate focus?”
There is a marked difference to the look and feel of this show, compared with Soth’s Gathered Leaves in the rooms next door. This is much more traditional and reference-heavy. The captions by the images are much longer and include more technical detail. The vitrines feature equipment and historical documents. There is no unfolding narrative, no direction to consume the images in a particular order.
The subtext, as – it seems – always, with Cameron is defensive. A justification for why she really IS important and remarkable and contextualization to ensure we fully understand how ground-breaking this work was at the time. As Patricia Holland observes, Cameron “embraced and transcended Victorian romanticism”. 
On one level the style is quite appealing to me. I like the dreaminess, the textures, the flaws. Many of the images are calm, serene and sunny; some are melancholic. Cameron certainly had an eye for the right models. Her upper middle-class circle also assisted as she was acquainted with many well-known artists, writers and intellectuals such Darwin, John Herschel and Tennyson. The placid, sculptural faces stare back at us or look away from the camera to allow us to admire their gentle poses. The photographer’s niece, who is the subject of her “favourite picture ever”, holds our gaze with an intensity which would have been extremely rare in 1867 by contemporary standards. The captions explain that these images “subvert the stereo-typical representation of women in the Victorian period”.
Graham Clarke explores this aspect further, talking about the codes affecting how and what is being photographed during the early days of portrait photography and marked differences between how Cameron depicts men and women. 
I will be looking at this in much more depth as the course continues.
These are, no doubt, excellent portraits and they have a timelessness which suggests to me that she achieved her goal of revealing “the greatness of the inner and as well as the features of the outer man” (and woman).
I am still somewhat confused as to why Julia Margaret Cameron is described in the Gesture and Meaning course notes as a social documentary photographer. Almost all of the books I have read group her with Henry Peach Robinson, Lady Clementina Hawarden and Oscar Rejlander, firmly rooted in pictorialism and, largely, privileged amateurs.
Perhaps it will all become clear as my journey continues.
- Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fourth Edition). London: Routledge. (p.134)
- Clarke, G (1997). The Photograph. Oxford University Press. (p.105)