Julia Margaret Cameron, The Kiss of Peace, 1869, albumen print from wet-plate collodion negative, 12 3/4 x 9 1/2".

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Kiss of Peace, 1869, albumen print from wet-plate collodion negative, 12 3/4 x 9 1/2".

Julia Margaret Cameron

Frick Art & Historical Center

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Kiss of Peace, 1869, albumen print from wet-plate collodion negative, 12 3/4 x 9 1/2".

With “For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron,” the Pittsburgh Frick organized this nineteenth-century photographer’s fecund practice around the contents of a mammoth tome containing works that the artist dedicated to her sister. The collection of seventy images includes photographs by Oscar Rejlander and Lewis Carroll and forty-seven taken by Cameron herself.

While the actual album occupied a vitrine at the center of the main gallery, its heft and inaccessibility intimating entombment, the individual photographs, by contrast, unfolded the filaments of Cameron’s family—immediate, extended, and adopted. In effect, the installation dissolved a binary of visibility versus interiority, a sensibility held by the Victorian culture in which Cameron worked. Though the exhibition paid lip service to Cameron’s putative rehearsal of received notions of Victorian femininity as pure and chaste and to the common characterization of Cameron’s soft focus as denoting an ethereal spirituality, the artist’s idiomatic handling of the medium proved instead to contradict those institutionally imposed values. As did so many photo hobbyists of the 1860s, Cameron used collodion (a mix of nitrocellulose, alcohol, and ether applied to a glass plate) to produce a light-sensitive surface. With this technique, the plate had to be transported to the darkroom still wet—a process that Cameron exploited, carrying the traces of her work’s birth from a wet matrix into the final photograph.

Arguably, such procedural contingencies of the medium are Cameron’s true subject. For example, in a ca. 1865–66 photograph of her niece Julia Jackson, drip marks function as a secondary frame, enclosing the sitter’s out-of-focus face and emphasizing the materiality of the photograph’s surface. In another, from ca. 1864–66, scratches and dust accumulated during the printing process are visible in the image, privileging the materiality of the medium over its tendency toward abstraction through representation. The wall text indicated that Julia Jackson’s second husband (and author of the National Literary Encyclopedia), Leslie Stephen, noted that his wife’s beauty was like that of a Sistine Madonna. However, the photograph is an accretion of irreducible specificity, undermining Stephen’s imposition of a model against which his spouse would be a mere copy.

Though the world she evokes is domestic, Cameron’s images proliferate beyond the suffocating limits of the immediate family. Ellipses of filiation are drawn, enfolding “outsiders”: The face of Mary Hiller, a servant, is seen in many photographs and, through seemingly amateur operations of the camera—radical discrepancies in focus, evidence of a smeared negative—is coddled by it. In The Dream, 1869, Cameron’s use of a narrow aperture holds Hiller close, the area of focus impinging on her exposed throat, softening all but her face and suggesting a nurturing and even smothering embrace. As though answering the camera’s call for intimacy, Hiller’s hair spills, blurred, into the foreground as if to envelop the viewer. The series of four photographs (all dated 1869) of Cameron’s daughter-in-law Annie Chinery provide another example of the photographer’s extended sense of family. Capturing every misplaced strand of hair, every flaw on her daughter-in-law’s exhausted face, Cameron took Chinery, rather than her own son, as subject, and then gave the images nuanced titles such as Our Beautiful Birdie and Ewen’s Betrothed.

Despite this tight sisterhood, there are images of men as well: portraits of Cameron’s husband, her brother-in-law, and her neighbor and friend Alfred, Lord Tennyson. With these male sitters, however, Cameron did not deploy the same degree of focus-and-blur used with her female subjects, suggesting that her work, while supporting the Victorian notion of separate spheres, exposes a world roiling beneath that of Victorian patriarchy, thriving under the sign of a (nonessentialized) feminine—one operating like (as the Situationists would put it a century later, oblivious to gender) the beach under the pavement. But this is not to say that Cameron magically resisted the mandates of her time. After barely a decade making photographs, she largely curtailed her practice when her husband insisted the couple return to their estate in Ceylon. Her particular gaze flickered for a brief moment before being buried in a family album and long forgotten—until now.

Jaleh Mansoor