“Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women”

The exhibition “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women” could be faulted for the exclusivity of its focus on the female sex. It is true that Cameron portrayed the men of mark of her day: Carlyle and Tennyson, Darwin and Herschel, Watts and Rossetti number among her pantheon of patriarchs. Thus, it is also true that in the absence of those bearded eminences, the sheer worldly ambition that drove her to photograph is not conveyed as well as it might be.

On the other hand, women were the main object of Cameron’s eccentric zeal, and the exhibition, curated by Sylvia Wolf of the Art Institute, conveys that admirably. Beards may be largely absent, but flowing tresses cascade here, there, and everywhere, crammed onto every possible partition and every available surface: and so the utter excess of Cameron’s dedication to the topic of Woman comes across in spades. More gender balance would have subtracted from that effect, which would have been a greater misrepresentation. For as much as Cameron’s photography ran on ambition, so it was fueled by immoderation. Which is to say that her unruliness was a matter not of subversion, rebellion, or refusal but of the intemperateness of her embrace of “femininity.”

Cameron was not alone in her obsession with maids and Madonnas. One need only think of Rossetti’s repetition compulsion in this regard. Or Lewis Carroll and all his little girls, surely no more than an extreme version of patriarchy's taste for the maiden. What set Cameron apart was the peculiarity of her devotion to photography, the “tender ardor” with which she inscribed her work, with its hallmark abandonment to the aleatory processes of light, lens adjustment, and collodion chemistry, its elision of the distinction between imagination and reality, and its embrace of the domestic framework of house and family, family albums, and home theatricals.

Over and over again Cameron emphasized the distaff side. That included children, and children who grew to be women, such as Lewis Carroll’s favorite muse, Alice Liddell, photographed twice by Cameron, still with her wild-child gaze and the blunt-cut bangs of her childhood, but now with her body grown and her hair grown out. Both the profile cameo and the frontal view, taken in 1872 when Liddell was twenty years old, fourteen years after Carroll had first photographed her, are in the exhibition. Cameron’s photographs repeat Carroll’s almost exactly, charting what Carroll wished to stave off: the changes in Liddell’s face and body over time, the fact of her not staying forever and ever the same, except in the photographs that fix her perennially against their walls of foliage.

Cameron photographed other women who were not of her family, such as Marie Spartali, painter and Pre-Raphaelite model. But where her portraits of great men open up to a wider world, her photographs of women tend to close in on her own family, staff, and neighborhood. The most photographed person in Cameron’s household was her parlormaid Mary Hillier, to whom an entire wall of the exhibition is devoted. Because of who she was, Hillier indexes the domesticity that was the founding condition of Cameron’s practice: the converting of a chicken hut into a glass house, laundering into photograph developing, dinner-table hospitality into exhibition opportunities, maids, children, and neighbors into models. One of the most beautiful photographs of Hillier is the dramatic 1867 profile dubbed, after Tennyson, “Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!” That profile is repeated in The Dream and The Angel at the Sepulchre of 1869, together with a younger girl in The Kiss of Peace of the same year, and in The Angel at the Tomb of 1870, with its deranged flood of disarranged hair. It is varied a little in Mary Mother, 1867, a part that Hillier played more than any other, hovering over the doomed flesh of children who were not hers in “real life” but became so in Cameron’s photographs. With Hillier, Cameron signaled her obsession with maternity, that quintessential Victorian family value and female role. But she did so beyond the bounds of what was reasonable. And she used her Marian message to point back to her medium, allegorizing photography’s ties to the round of birth, death, and generation that the home enframes.

Many of Cameron’s housebound photographs of women are marked by intensive repetition, as in the photographs of her niece Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth Stephen, in whose individual maturation the stages of maidenhood, marriage, and widowhood are charted. The first photograph of Jackson, taken in 1864 at the age of eighteen, three years before her marriage to Herbert Duckworth, shows her young and roundfaced. The last, taken in 1874, shows her at twenty-eight, four years widowed and four years before her remarriage, a mature, thinner-faced, deep-eyed apparition. But she was most photographed in 1867, during the year of her first wedding. In one series she faces outward, looking the viewer straight in the eye with a glassy gaze. This series also thematizes Cameron’s signature range of out-of-focus to in-focus as the means of Jackson’s coming into photographic being: so that gradually her glistening eyes and let-down hair, and even the pores of her skin, come into uncanny focus before our eyes. It is as if we are visited by a phantom that, fading in and out, addresses the fundamental photographic connection between “specter” and “spectrum,” spirit, ghost, and light. And then, as if from beyond the grave, we are reminded that this niece and daughter was the mother of Virginia Woolf, herself long since dead.

Julia Jackson is on the show’s catalogue cover, serving as an appropriate emblem for “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women,” if not of the logic or purpose behind the exclusion of men from its walls as well. For in addition to the Rapunzel effect of the exhibition, Jackson’s spooky visage emblematizes the “feminine” idiosyncrasy of Cameron’s photography: the house-and-family confines of her work, its commitment to the marriage-and-motherhood experience of Victorian women, its family-tree connection to the heritage of feminism, its dialectical position between “the angel in the house” and “a room of one’s own.” Including Cameron’s patriarchs would only have brought the law of the father back into this photographic gynarchy.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art history at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

“Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until May 4, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Aug. 27–Nov. 20.