In a short essay in the voluminous catalog that accompanies the exhibition “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women,” Phyllis Rose notes that “Cameron’s women do not smile. Their poses embody sorrow, resignation, composure, solemnity, and love, determined love, love which will have a hard time of it.” Rose goes on to write of the illness, disaster, and defeat that perpetually hovered over the lives of Victorian women. But there were causes closer to hand for the tragic address of Cameron’s women. Cameron used a photographic apparatus—fifteen- by twelve-inch glass plates and a lens of thirty-inch focal length—that required exposures of between three and ten minutes. Here is an account of a sitting by one of the unsmiling women, quoted by Helmut Gernsheim in his book Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work (1948 and 1974):
Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. This was somewhat tedious, but not half so bad as the exposure…. The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream; another minute, and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead….
As it proved, the sitter’s excruciations were for naught. The photograph was ruined during the fifth minute by Cameron’s husband Charles, a distinguished retired colonial official with a magnificent white beard, who would affably lend himself to his wife’s enterprise to play a Merlin or Lear as the occasion required, but who was unfortunately given to “unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places.” When Charles “began to laugh audibly…this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.”
We have been affectionately laughing at Julia Cameron for over half a century; her reputation as a major photographer is inextricably entangled with the legend of her endearing ridiculousness. Virginia Woolf, who was Cameron’s great-niece, set the legend in motion in 1926 in a biographical essay she wrote for the Hogarth Press monograph Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron. Three years earlier, Woolf had written a farce called Freshwater (a sort of Patience manqué, named for Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, where Charles and Julia lived) in which she poked fun at the Victorian cult of beauty and rendered her great-aunt as one of its more exalted high priestesses. She described Cameron as “a brown-faced gypsylike-looking old woman, wearing a green shawl, fastened by an enormous cameo,” and gave her this speech:
All my sisters were beautiful, but I had genius. They were the brides of men, but I am the bride of Art. I have sought the beautiful in the most unlikely places. I have searched the police force at Freshwater, and not a man have I found with calves worthy of Sir Galahad. But, as I said to the Chief Constable, “Without beauty, constable, what is order? Without life, what is law?” Why should I continue to have my silver protected by a race of men whose legs are aesthetically abhorrent to me? If a burgler came and he were beautiful, I should say to him: Take my fish knives! Take my cruets, my bread baskets and my soup tureens. What you take is nothing to what you give, your calves, your beautiful calves.
Woolf’s essay on her great-aunt, though less broadly Gilbertian than her farce, sustains the comic note. It begins with a wild story about Cameron’s reprobate father, James Pattle, a colonial official stationed in Calcutta, who died of drink in 1845 and whose corpse, according to the story, was sent back to England in a cask of rum, which exploded on the sea journey and caused the death by horror of his widow—as well as the destruction of the ship, which itself exploded when the rum, running out of the cask, ignited. The tall tale of the father who couldn’t be contained in his sepulcher of spirits is told to illustrate the “indomitable vitality” of the stock from which Cameron sprang. She was one of seven sisters celebrated for their energy, strong-mindedness, and, in all but one case, spectacular beauty. Julia Margaret was the exception. She “was without her sisters’ beauty,” Woolf writes, and goes on to substantiate the charge with the testimony of another great-niece, who had known Cameron as a child, and who recalled her as “short and squat, with none of the Pattle grace and beauty about her…. Dressed in dark clothes, stained with chemicals from her photography (and smelling of them too), with a plump eager face and a voice husky, and a little harsh, yet in some way compelling and even charming.”
Cameron’s unattractiveness—her role as the woman who loved beauty but didn’t herself possess it—is a pivot of the legend. When we look at Cameron’s pictures of fair women (almost without exception her female sitters were young and pretty), we see, as a kind of afterimage, the gypsylike crone in the stained black dress who was their creator. Cameron’s pictures also inescapably evoke the Victorian household over which she presided, with its fish knives and cruets and soup tureens, its maids and cooks and gardeners, its children and grandchildren and streams of visitors, among them the famous men (Tennyson, Carlyle, Browning, Darwin, Longfellow, among others) whom Cameron lured into the chicken house she had converted into a studio, and upon whose likenesses her artistic reputation for a long time largely rested.
We recall, further, that Cameron started photographing only at the age of forty-eight, with a camera her daughter and son-in-law supplied to divert her while the jocund Mr. Cameron was away looking after a failing coffee plantation, and she was alone in the house at Freshwater Bay, suffering from depression and anxiety. “It may amuse you, mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater,” were the words which accompanied the fateful gift. Hitherto, Cameron had lived the life of a well-to-do Victorian married woman who dabbled in poetry and fiction while raising her six children, and made a reputation for herself as a person of irrepressible, almost pathological generosity. Helmut Gernsheim, who elaborated what Woolf had adumbrated, tells wonderful anecdotes about the presents Cameron would force on the people she fell in love with, most notably the poet Henry Taylor (who had been a runner-up to Tennyson for Poet Laureate, and now is only known to Victorian specialists) and his wife, Alice. Cameron’s largesse took the form of rare rugs, shawls, jewelry, and decorative objects she and Charles brought from Calcutta when they returned to England in 1848, and which Cameron proceeded to dispense as if they were throat lozenges. Gernsheim cites a man who “was sitting in a train with Henry Taylor at Waterloo Station when a disheveled lady rushed up at the last moment and flung a Persian rug in through the window as a present for Henry Taylor, who immediately—the train had started to move—heaved it out of the window onto the platform.”
Another story Gernsheim tells about Cameron’s relentless benevolence toward the Taylors concerns a “particularly valuable shawl” which Alice Taylor had accepted
only under the threat that otherwise it would be thrown into the fire. After an interval to allow Mrs. Cameron’s feelings to calm down, it was returned, and nothing more was said. But it was impossible to defeat Mrs. Cameron. She sold the shawl, and with the proceeds bought an expensive invalid sofa which she presented in Mrs. Taylor’s name to the hospital for incurables at Putney. The matter came to light many months later when Alice Taylor had occasion to visit the hospital and, to her astonishment, saw her name inscribed as donor.
The resourcefulness Cameron developed in the course of her subjugation of the Taylors (according to Gernsheim, Cameron “told Mrs. Taylor that before the year was over she would love her like a sister” and Mrs. Taylor evidently did) stood her in good stead when she began to “try to photograph.” Photography in the 1860s was not for sissies. You did not snap the shutter and someone else did the rest. What you had to do was akin to Marie Curie’s extraction of radium from pitchblende. The wet collodion process (then the state-of-the-art method) required a combination of dexterity and stamina that only the most fanatically motivated of amateurs could command. “I worked fruitlessly, but not hopelessly,” Cameron wrote in an unfinished autobiographical account called Annals of my Glass House. “I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass…when holding it triumphantly to dry.”
Cameron’s defeat was characteristically short-lived; she rapidly mastered the collodion process and went on to produce photographs by which not only her immediate family was charmed (“My husband from first to last has watched every picture with delight, and it is my daily habit to run to him with every glass upon which a fresh glory is newly stamped, and to listen to his enthusiastic applause,” she wrote in Annals, and went on in her breathless, unstinting way to report that “this habit of running into the dining room with my wet pictures has stained such an immense quantity of table linen with nitrite of silver, indelible stains, that I should have been banished from any less indulgent household”), but which won the praise of a larger world and presently came to number among the monuments of photography. However, not all of Cameron’s photographs became monuments.
Early on, a distinction was drawn between the photographs of single individuals and the group pictures (Cameron called them “fancy-subject” pictures), in which two or more costumed (or, in the case of children, nude or seminude) sitters enacted, under Cameron’s direction, scenes from the Bible, mythology, Shakespeare, or Tennyson. In the critical essay that followed Woolf’s biographical one in Famous Men and Fair Women, Roger Fry set the terms of the yes-and-no discourse on Cameron’s photography that was to remain in place for over half a century. He heaped praise on the individual portraits, placing them in “the universal and dateless world” of Rembrandt, and dismissed the group pictures as so much Victorian ephemera. “These must all be judged as failures from an aesthetic standpoint,” he wrote of the fancy-subject pictures, mystifyingly excepting a photograph called the “Rosebud Garden of Girls.” Gernsheim, who had escalated Woolf’s remarks about Cameron’s looks to “Julia was charmingly, hopelessly, pathetically plain,” similarly heightened the harshness of Fry’s estimate of the fancy-subject pictures: “If the majority of Mrs. Cameron’s subject pictures seem to us affected, ludicrous and amateurish, and appear in our opinion to be failures, how masterly, on the other hand, are her straightforward, truthful portraits, which are entirely free from false sentiment, and which compensate for the errors of taste in her studies.” Subsequent writers on Cameron, among them Cecil Beaton, Edward Lucie-Smith, Quentin Bell, Brian Hall, and Ben Maddow, unquestioningly perpetuated the idea that only some of Cameron’s work was worth looking at, and that a lot of it was an embarrassment.
In 1984, a book with the quiet title Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879 was published in England, and it almost crackled with the indignation of its author, an Oxford professor named Mike Weaver, who couldn’t bear the way Cameron and her work had been, as he saw it, condescended to and misjudged by Woolf, Fry, et al. Here is Weaver’s testy commentary on the legend of the wacky great-aunt:
The story that her children gave her a camera to pacify her while [Charles Cameron] was away…is another of those many anecdotes which aim to rob her of her dignity as woman and artist, and have taken the place of criticism of her work…. The anecdotes attempt to turn her into a blue-stocking. She is depicted as obsessed with old-fashioned shawls, with fingers stained with chemicals (what do women know about science?)… Some have suggested it was all too much for poor Charles and other alleged “victims,” but there is no sign of conflict between them, rather a sense of deep and lasting relationship based on mutual admiration. She was the Mrs. Gaskell of photography. She seems to have accepted maternity and marriage as high and holy offices, and lived an active life in which art relieved her from daily household cares. She was not an invalid, not repressed, and not inadequate. She was a nice-looking woman, who was a fine person. Her sisters, all younger than her, for all their famed beauty, could not hold a candle to her. A Christian artist, she submitted her passions and her pride to the will of others, and, above all, to God. If it were not so unfashionable, I would have called her a genius….
Far from dismissing the fancy-subject pictures as kitsch, Weaver holds them up as the essential core of Cameron’s oeuvre, the culminating expression of the Christian piety by which, in his view, all her photography is animated—the “straightforward” secular-seeming portraits no less than the explicitly religious compositions—and to which her aesthetic ambition was always subservient. What Gernsheim saw as “false sentiment” and “errors of taste” Weaver sees as an enterprise of confident seriousness and sincerity. Weaver proposes the typological tradition of Bible-reading—whereby characters and themes in the Hebrew scriptures are identified as prefigurations of characters and themes in the New Testament (Rachel at the well anticipating the angel at the tomb, for example, or the infant Samuel anticipating the infant Jesus)—as a model for the decoding of the problematic group pictures. Through his study of Anna Jameson’s The Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art, among other nineteenth-century texts, Weaver imagines himself into the imagination of Cameron where, he believes, the Bible, classical mythology, Shakespeare’s plays, and Tennyson’s poems were fused into a single vision of ideal beauty. The vision’s matrix was the Renaissance, medieval, and Pre-Raphaelite art with which Cameron, as a woman of culture, was intimately familiar.
In a second book, Whisper of the Muse, Weaver expands and deepens his account of Cameron as a major religious artist, further naturalizing her “magnificent contribution” in the now very far country of Victorian Christian aesthetic theory (John Henry Newman, John Kebble, and Charles Cameron, who had written an essay on the sublime, are among his sources). He continues to spring at the throats of “those who charge her with eccentricity.” “They deserve our indignation. It is a cheap calumny against a completely centered woman,” he writes.
Weaver’s fierce reappraisal has been very influential. The fancy-subject pictures have become the object of appreciative study, and the funny stories about the woman “of ardent speech and picturesque behavior” are no longer routinely retailed. Sylvia Wolf, the curator of the “Cameron’s Women” show, almost entirely excludes them from her sober-sided feminist catalog essay, from which Cameron emerges as a woman of no particular oddness. Weaver’s empathic understanding of Cameron—his insistence that we approach her as an advanced Christian thinker, rather than as the heroine of a screwball comedy—has obviously had weight with Wolf. The trouble is that Cameron was the heroine of a screwball comedy. There is too much evidence of the picturesque behavior for it to be summarily dismissed as a calumny. Virginia Woolf and Gernsheim did not invent the anecdotes: they gratefully took them from Cameron’s contemporaries (notably her best friend, the painter A.F. Watts, and her good friend Annie Thackeray) and, most tellingly, from Cameron herself. It is, after all, from Cameron’s own Annals that the story of the camera given “to amuse you, mother” derives, as does the image of Cameron rushing into the dining room and dripping silver nitrite all over the linen of the table at which poor Charles is trying to eat.
But above all, it is the photographs themselves that confirm the You Can’t Take It With You character of life at Freshwater and that oblige us to demur from Weaver’s presentation of Cameron as a Raphael or Giotto of the camera. If Cameron’s Madonna and Child pictures and her illustrations of scenes from Tennyson seem less silly to us than they did to the puritanical modernists, even the most catholic of postmodernists will have to acknowledge that these photographs bear unmistakable traces of the conditions under which they were taken, and that these conditions were often comical. In a group picture in the “Cameron’s Women” show called “May Day,” for example, the five flower-bedecked figures look as if they had been brought together not to celebrate the annual renewal of life but to illustrate the memoir of the lady who said she felt as if her eyes were coming out of her head. A little girl in the foreground (who, in actuality, was a little boy named Freddy Gould, the son of a local fisherman) stares into the middle distance with an unforgettably glazed expression of resigned misery. Another subject picture—a Madonna and Child composition called “Goodness”—would be more aptly named “Sulkiness,” after the expression of the child who is representing the infant Jesus, and who obviously hates every minute of her modeling assignment.
These traces, of course, are what give the photographs their life and charm. If Cameron had succeeded in her project of making seamless works of illustrative art, her work would be among the curiosities of Victorian photography—like Henry Peach Robinson’s waxen “Fading Away” and Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s extravagantly awful “The Two Ways of Life”—rather than among its most vital images. Cameron liked to make albums of her photographs and to thrust them upon friends and influential people, in rather the way she thrust shawls on the Taylors. (Lord Overstone, Victor Hugo, and George Eliot were among the sometimes puzzled objects of her largesse. It is also said that she tipped porters with photographs.) These collections were not family albums. They were intended not to fix the fleeting moments of family life but to record Cameron’s triumphant progress through the precincts of High Art. And yet, in many respects, Cameron’s compositions have more connection to the family album pictures of recalcitrant relatives who have been herded together for the obligatory group picture than they do to the masterpieces of Western painting. In Raphael and Giotto there are no infant Christs whose faces are blurred because they moved, or who are looking at the viewer with frank hatred. Gernsheim wrote of Cameron’s illustrations of Tennyson as attempts to do “something photography cannot and should not be made to do…. When she tried to illustrate an action, the results are reminiscent of poor amateur theatricals, and are unintentionally comic. In these she has certainly overshot the mark of what is acceptable—to our generation—in artificiality.” Gernsheim added that “most attempts to illustrate the unreal by a medium whose main contribution to art lies in its realism are doomed to failure.”
But it is precisely the camera’s realism—its stubborn obsession with the surface of things—that has given Cameron’s theatricality and artificiality its atmosphere of truth. It is the truth of the sitting rather than the fiction which all the dressing up was in aid of that wafts out of these wonderful and strange, not-quite-in-focus photographs. They are what they are: pictures of housemaids and nieces and husbands and village children who are dressed up as Mary Madonnas and infant Jesuses and John the Baptists and Lancelots and Guiniveres and trying desperately hard to sit still. The way each sitter endures his or her ordeal is the collective action of the photograph, its “plot” so to speak. When we look at a narrative painting we can suspend our disbelief; when we look at a narrative photograph we cannot. We are always aware of the photograph’s doubleness—of each figure’s imaginary and real persona. Theater can transcend its doubleness, can make us believe (for at least some of the time) that we are seeing only Lear or Medea. Still photographs of theatrical scenes can never escape being pictures of actors. What gives Cameron’s pictures of actors their special quality—their status as treasures of photography of an unfathomably peculiar sort—is their singular combination of amateurism and artistry.
Weaver’s characterization of Cameron as a genius does not seem to me exaggerated in regard to her grasp of the possibilities offered by photography for transcendent formal achievement. “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me,” Cameron wrote in her Annals. Every amateur photographer knows this feeling. But only a few amateurs (Lartigue is another) have understood what is involved in this arrest. For a beautiful child’s beauty to survive the camera’s withering gaze, much propitiatory activity by the photographer is required. Cameron knew, for example, that the clothes children normally wear (in Victorian times no less than in ours) are among the camera’s most potent weapons against the pedophilia of the photographing aunt or grandmother. Instead of a beautiful child, the camera will deliver a competition between a face and a dress or snowsuit, a clash between the delicacy and translucency of young skin and the coarse materiality of fashionable dress. A great-niece of Cameron’s named Laura Gurney recalled the day when she and her sister Rachel were “pressed into the service of the camera [as]…two Angels of the Nativity, and to sustain them we were scantily clad and each had a heavy pair of swan wings fastened to her narrow shoulders, while Aunt Julia, with ungentle hand, tousled our hair to get rid of its prim nursery look.” But clearly, Aunt Julia knew what she was doing to give her vision of childhood beauty its best possible shot at being transmitted onto the wet-glass plate. If it would be too much to say that Cameron chose religious and literary themes simply as an escape from Victorian costume, there is no question that her draperies and veils and turbans and crowns and coats of mail gave her a considerable aesthetic advantage over the studio photographers and fellow amateurs who took their sitters as they came.
Cameron had other strategies for throwing a veil of romance over the zany goings-on in the chicken house. In her essay “Cupid’s Pencil of Light: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Maternalization of Photography,”1 Carol Armstrong wonderfully reads a photograph of old Mr. Cameron, dressed as Merlin, posed with an unknown sitter, dressed as the sorceress Vivien (who is pointing a finger at Charles’s head as if it was a small lady’s revolver), as “an allegorical figuration of Cameron herself as photographic sorceress, quite a bit younger than her husband, directing the bemused patriarch to hold his pose, commanding him to be still (and stop his giggling), and magically, indexically, enchanting him, transforming him into Merlin, all through the bewitching witchcraft of photography.”
One of Cameron’s most potent spells was the soft focus into which—at first unwittingly (she evidently initially had the wrong lens for her camera) and then by design—she consistently cast her images. One has only to imagine her fancy-subject pictures as taken by Richard Avedon’s or Annie Leibovitz’s pitilessly sharp lenses to understand the role soft focus plays in the sense these pictures give of being traces of impossible dreams, rather than mere laughable attempts to fool the eye. Cameron’s lighting further heightens the oneiric character of her work. She kept her glass house fairly dark, which prolonged the torture of the sittings but permitted her to put into play what Quentin Bell called her “Venetian understanding of chiaroscuro.” A photograph called “The Passing of Arthur,” which has often been jeered at for its artificiality and theatricality, and which Gernsheim holds up as one of the very worst of the fancy-subject pictures, has always given me a secret thrill, to which I now feel free to confess. The picture shows, in Gernsheim’s derisively vivid description,
the mortally wounded king [lying] in the stately barge (a simple makeshift boat with broomsticks for mast and oar jutting out into the white muslin curtains representing water), resting his head in the lap of one of the Queens, and looking rather suspicious of his strange surroundings. Unfortunately the boat is too small to contain the three mourning Queens, so the other two have to stand behind it. Half a dozen villagers muffled in monks’ cowls made by Mrs. Cameron’s maids lurk in the background….
But the accompanying illustration does not support Gernsheim’s mockery. Far from looking ridiculous, “The Passing of Arthur” is a kind of crowning image of Cameron’s imaginative enterprise. Yes, the broomsticks and the muslin curtains are there, but they are insignificant. For once, the homely truth of the sitting gives right of place to the romantic fantasy of its director. The picture, a night scene, is magical and mysterious. Gernsheim compared Cameron’s fancy-subject pictures to poor amateur theatricals. “The Passing of Arthur” puts me in mind of good amateur theatricals I have seen, and recall with shameless delight.
Cameron is reported to have said—on the occasion of declining to photograph Mrs. Charles Darwin—that “no woman must be photographed between the ages of eighteen and seventy.” How firmly Cameron adhered to her program of ruthless ageism is evident from the “Cameron’s Women” show, in which one dewily fresh young woman after another is on view. These are the “fair women” of the Hogarth Press monograph, who now reappear unescorted. Sylvia Wolf, accounting for her decision to banish the “famous men,” writes that she finds Cameron’s portraits of women “different from her portraits of men—more complex and enigmatic somehow.”
However, in one respect at least, the portraits of the famous men (who are middle-aged or elderly) and those of the fair women are not dissimilar: both reflect Cameron’s love of hair. Her closeups of Tennyson, Carlyle, Darwin, Longfellow, Taylor, Watts, and Charles Cameron are as much celebrations of beards as of Victorian eminence. (In the case of her remarkable portrait of Sir John Herschel, who was clean-shaven, Cameron made the seventy-five-year-old astronomer wash his white hair before the sitting so that it would fly out to form a kind of mad scientist’s shock around his head.) Hair is similarly prominent in the portraits of Mary Ann Hillier (who was Cameron’s parlor maid and posed for her as the Mother of God so frequently that she was called Madonna around the house), Cyllena Wilson (an adopted daughter), Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll’s Alice, now grown), Annie Chinery (Cameron’s daughter-in-law), Mary Ryan (another maid), May Prinsep (a niece), and Julia Jackson (another niece and future mother of Virginia Woolf), who, among others, form the cast of the “Cameron’s Women” show. Like the little girls whose hair was mussed to rid it of its prim nursery look, the bigger girls were made to undo their buns and chignons so that their hair would poetically stream or flow or twist around their faces.
A profile portrait of Hillier, entitled “The Angel at the Tomb,” in which a massive tangle of freshly washed hair occupies half the frame, could serve as a companion piece for the Herschel portrait. In two portraits of Alice Liddell, entitled, respectively, “Pomona” and “Alethea,” the boundary between a dense profusion of leaves and flowers and the sitter’s long, loose hair is breached—as if to express Cameron’s Morris-like delight in all things that grow and twine.
Her practice of portraying the famous men in their own illustrious person while (with some exceptions) rendering the fair women as biblical or literary characters might suggest a certain sexism.2 But the photographs themselves tell a more egalitarian story. They show no evidence that Cameron’s heart beat any less rapidly and jumpily when she photographed her maid than when she photographed the poet laureate. Perhaps she dared less with men in the hair-mussing and clothes-changing department (though she did manage to throw a gray blanket across Tennyson’s shoulders and possibly even to tousle his hair when she took the photograph that came to be known as the “Dirty Monk” portrait). But the intensity of the photographer-subject relationship was no less in the case of the servant than in that of the great man.
In 1864, her fellow amateur photographer Lewis Carroll visited the Isle of Wight and wrote to his sister about a “mutual exhibition of photographs” he had had with Cameron. “Hers are all taken purposely out of focus—some are very picturesque—some merely hideous—however, she talks of them as if they were triumphs of art.” Certainly Cameron never doubted herself. In her Annals she found it “too comical” that Tennyson should have preferred a portrait of himself by a studio photographer named Mayall to her “Dirty Monk” portrait. She dismissed a devastating review of her work in the Journal of the Photographic Society of London, writing: “[It] would have dispirited me very much had I not valued that criticism at its worth. It was unsparing and too manifestly unjust for me to attend to it.”
Sylvia Wolf has put many remarkable photographs on view in her show, but I’m not sure she has done Cameron the feminist justice she believes she has. As in any all-woman or all-man gathering, a certain artificiality and self-consciousness adheres to the occasion. (A couple of costumed men appear—Henry Taylor as King Ahasuerus in one group picture and as Friar Laurence in another, and an anonymous sitter as Lancelot—but they are recessive, like the male escorts in women’s fashion pictures.) The famous-men portraits may have once been overvalued, but without them the world of Cameron’s photography is diminished. The beauty that Cameron found, and in a surprising number of cases was able to arrest, among the aging and aged men of the Victorian literary and art establishment is a cornerstone of her achievement. (Her refusal to photograph aging and aged women is an obvious measure of her understanding of biology’s misogyny.) According to Gernsheim, Cameron once took a visitor to a bedroom in her house where Charles had retreated and lay fast asleep. “Pointing to him, she said, ‘Behold the most beautiful old man on earth!’ When out of the room the stranger inquired, ‘Who is he, is he a model?’ to which Mrs. Cameron proudly replied: ‘He is my husband.’” The banishment of the beautiful old men—like the ban on the funny stories—is surely only a temporary obstruction standing in the way of the enlivening force of the Cameron revival.
February 4, 1999
October, Vol. 76 (Spring 1996). ↩
One of the exceptions was Julia Jackson, who had inherited the Pattle beauty and whom Cameron obsessively photographed—always as herself—in the years before and after her first marriage to Herbert Duckworth. Another was Cameron’s only daughter, Julia Norman—the daughter who gave her the camera—whom Cameron scarcely ever photographed. A rare portrait of Julia Norman at the age of twenty-eight, which appeared in Famous Men and Fair Women and appears in the “Cameron’s Women” show, renders her as a woman of a rather startlingly different type of beauty than that to which Cameron was habitually drawn. It shows a dark, strong-featured woman dressed in black, her sad, almost grim face framed by a dark veil; she is looking down, and she could be one of the nameless widows who appear in news photographs from war-torn Near Eastern or Mediterranean places. However, it was her husband who was to become a widower: she died in childbirth in 1873, at the age of thirty-four, leaving six children. None of Cameron’s biographers have enlarged on the relationship between mother and daughter, around which there hovers a certain atmosphere of unease. ↩