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Indepth Arts News:

"Julia Margaret Cameron's Women"
1999-08-27 until 1999-11-30
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA, USA United States of America

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 79) is recognized as a pioneer of photography and one of the great portait photographers of all time. This is the first exhibition devoted specifically to Cameron's portraits of women. Although known largely for her photographs of famous male figures of her day, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin, Cameron likewise produced outstanding photographs of Victorian women. Addressing the manner in which Cameron's female subjects' physical beauty, intelligence, spirituality and maternal sensibilities were considered to mark their unique place in contemporary society, Julia Margaret Cameron's Women attempts to understand the period terms in which these emotionally charged photographs were conceived. Cameron's sophisticated use of lighting, selective focus and literary allusion resulted in a powerful portrayal of Victorian womanhood that is examined closely for the first time in this exhibition.

Organized by Sylvia Wolf, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and recently named photography curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and coordinated for SFMOMA by Douglas R. Nickel, associate curator of photography, the exhibition was drawn from both public and private collections and includes 57 rare vintage prints, several of which have never before been exhibited outside Great Britain.

Cameron was driven by old-fashioned values and modern ambition, comments Wolf. Indeed, in her life and in her art, she was the embodiment of the paradoxical time in which she lived. That, ultimately, is what makes her pictures so powerful. All of Cameron's portraits -- of men and women alike -- reveal her sympathy for humanity and her love of photography, but her portraits of women, in particular, reflect the questioning of identity that is a defining characteristic of the modern era. Julia Margaret Pattle was born in Calcutta, India, to James Pattle, a British official of the East India Co., and Adeline de l'Etang, a daughter of French aristocrats. Educated in Versailles, France, Cameron returned to India and married the English lawyer Charles Hay Cameron in 1838. When her husband retired, the Camerons moved to the Isle of Wight, a gathering place for Victorian luminaries such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1863, Cameron's daughter and son-in-law gave her a camera for her birthday. She was 48 when she began to take photographs. By the time Cameron started to create portraits, photography was a burgeoning commercial enterprise. However, from the beginning, Cameron sought to distinguish her work from common commercial portraits that documented the sitter's wealth and status instead of communicating personal expressions of individuality. Indeed, her pioneering use of selective focus and direct compositions sought to contain the immortal within, a dramatic departure from the stiff, detail-oriented portraits of the time. Despite a storm of criticism, Cameron stayed true to her artistic mission to startle the world. Though Cameron photographed many of the era's most famous male poets and scientists, the majority of her photographs took women as their subject. Her female models were selected for their youth and beauty, not their social status. She used ladies and servants, family members and distant acquaintances, and transformed them into Madonnas, angels and Sybils. Cameron took greatest creative license with her portraits of women, often utilizing biblical, classical or other literary themes. One of her most famous sitters was Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934) the subject of Lewis Carroll's children's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In Pomona, 1872, Liddell is no longer a child, but a young woman with a square jaw, boyish bangs and hand on hip. Cameron represents Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, with an expressive power that communicates defiance, melancholy and desire. She walks in beauty, 1874, a photograph of Julia Jackson, Cameron's niece and the mother of Virginia Woolf, is a striking example of Victorian feminine idealism. This work, based on a line from Byron's Hebrew's Melodies, 1815, is one of Cameron's last portraits of Jackson, her favorite subject. In it, the widowed Jackson is dressed in finery and positioned against an ivy-covered garden wall. The pose and setting suggest a formal portrait of a fashionable woman. However, Jackson's face is empty of emotion, her eyes glazed and unfocused. The image reflects the Victorian penchant for finding beauty and nobility in suffering. Cameron was not a professionally trained photographer, but her work shows great technical innovation. Unlike small-scale studio portraits, Cameron's photographs -- most taken in a converted chicken coop with veiled windows -- are large, immediate, close-up pictures in which specific areas are sharply focused while extraneous details dissolve in the background. The photographs could require three to seven minutes to expose, and any movement, even breathing, would register on the negative and further diffuse the image. Cameron remarked that the soft-focus effects of her works were achieved by accident, but she recognized the artistic value of her error and incorporated it into her work. As the novelist and Cameron collector Victor Hugo wrote in a letter to the photographer, No one has ever captured the rays of the sun and used them as you have. I throw myself at your feet. Julia Margaret Cameron's Women is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue that contains essays by Sylvia Wolf; Phyllis Rose, a Victorian scholar; and Debra N. Mancoff, a Tennyson scholar. The book is co-published by the Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press and is available in the SFMOMA MuseumStore. For more information on a slide lecture accompanying the exhibition, contact the SFMOMA Department of Public Programs at 415/357-4102. - - - - - This exhibition was organized by The Art Institute of Chicago with the support of American Airlines and The National Endowment for the Arts.

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