Feature

Exhibit of the week: Julia Margaret Cameron

You’d be forgiven for thinking of Instagram when looking at the work of Julia Margaret Cameron.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Through Jan. 5

You’d be forgiven for thinking of Instagram when looking at the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, said Jonathon Keats in Forbes.com. During her 11-year career as a photographer, this British cosmopolitan (1815–79) built a body of work that “retains uncanny vibrancy” in part because of apparent technical imperfections. Critics who dismissed her ethereal portraits of such famous acquaintances as Lewis Carroll and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, didn’t appreciate what she was up to: “Rather than trying to suppress the chemical and physical limitations of 19th-century photography, Cameron flaunted them.” Today, Instagram and similar photo apps purposefully introduce atmospheric effects like lens flare and oversaturation into digital snapshots. But Instagram adds flaws blindly and uniformly. Cameron was doing almost the opposite: carefully exploiting the intrinsic technological limits of 19th-century photography to enlarge the medium’s expressive range.

Cameron, at midlife, ascended “almost instantly” from “accidental hobbyist to relentless professional,” said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. She was 48 when she received her first camera, a present from her daughter. Soon she was using it to create portraits of friends, servants, and Britain’s artistic elite, and the show “crackles with the vivacity of Cameron and her fellow aesthetes.” Not that her subjects were always flattered by their likenesses, said Richard B. Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. Tennyson nicknamed Cameron’s 1865 portrait of him “The Dirty Monk.” Yet most modern viewers will find every straight portrait superior to Cameron’s staged tableaux that were designed to re-create scenes from the Bible or English literature. Filled with “adorable children and saintly mothers,” these images remain most popular among viewers who have a taste for camp.

Even given the divisions created by her stagiest work,“nothing in Cameron’s legacy is fought over with more gusto” than the matter of focus, said Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. Cameron never tightened her camera’s aperture, resulting in pictures that consistently present a single thin plane of focus, “with everything in front of it and behind it slipping into a haze.” Some commentators have wondered if this was less an artistic choice than a product of poor eyesight. But at the Met’s small but potent Cameron show, you can see, in an 1867 portrait of Thomas Carlyle, what her unusual technique allowed her to accomplish. The photograph is primarily “a great well of shadow, in which one half of the writer’s face is drowned.” The other half of Carlyle’s face, “with its lonely eye and its salty shock of hair,” isn’t frozen in time. Instead, it “shudders and blurs,” as if Cameron had caged a living spirit that “would not, and could not, hold still.”

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