A Victorian day (among the upper classes) might have gone something like this: up with the dawn and a brisk walk, then to the desk for an hour or two translating Greek or one of the Semitic languages. A hearty breakfast, and down to business, tying up various affairs and taking care of correspondence. With that out of the way, real work could commence: finishing up volume five of the history of the Frankish kings, say, long overdue at the publisher. A short break for tea, or straight on ’til dinner (mountainous), then, finally, to the club, there to settle the political direction of the nation.
Or, if you were a woman like Julia Margaret Cameron, you could keep your ambitions simple: raise your family, change the face of art, make money. She did all three.
Born in Calcutta in 1815, a true daughter of the Empire, Cameron belonged to a circle of Victorian over-achievers that included poets and writers Thomas Carlyle and Alfred Tennyson, the astronomer Sir John Herschel, and the painters William Holman Hunt and Theodore Watts. She photographed them all and imbibed from them the ethereal, mythologizing aesthetic of the so-called Pre-Raphaelites. Her Ophelias, Galahads, Enids and other characters of her literary tableaus require a good deal of dusting off, although contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith have shown us that photography and fairy tales do mix.
The portraits are a different story, as the images on view at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs (October 4–November 18) make stunningly clear. Cameron distinguished them from her tableaus by designating them “from life,” and as Kraus points out, she insisted on their importance for just that reason. As we can see from the picture of her niece, Julia Duckworth, Cameron tossed aside the conventions of portraiture, the stiff postures required by long exposures, in favor of naturalness and blur—“as if these famous worthies had walked in off the street,” in Kraus’s words. She discovered the approach by accident (she didn’t begin to photograph until she was well into her 40s) but defended
it with fierce confidence. In fact, she became perfectly competent at making more precise images, capable of pleasing photographers as well as painters (who always liked her work best). But these portraits compel us to look beyond their novelty and idealizing tendency to the source of their power. Portraits in the age of deadpan typology discourage us from probing the dialectic of photographer and subject, but that relation is exactly Cameron’s motive. She records intense engagements between subjectivities; she celebrates subjectivity itself at a time when artists and philosophers were well aware of its traps—solipsism, isolation, and deathly melancholy. It may be that only a woman at that time, attuned to the subtler rhythms of domesticity, could witness the inwardness of another soul. With the camera as her divining rod, Cameron confirmed by sympathy and attention the reality and majesty of those souls.