From Stella Rosa McDonald…
In her 1999 essay “The Genius of The Glasshouse”, Janet Malcolm wrote, “We have been affectionately laughing at Julia Cameron for over half a century”. Julia Margaret Cameron’s staged photographs are scored by finger marks, printed from broken plates and smeared with emulsion; they are technically — often deliberately — sloppy. Cameron was nothing if not eccentric; ever keen to improve her photographs and ennoble the form, she would leave praise from mentors inscribed on the mounts. On the border of The angel at the sepulcher (1869-70), reads the inscription “Very beautiful/None better/GF Watts”. She pipped postmodernism at the post. And so it is with double vision that we now view Cameron’s photographs, which are “good” and “bad” in equal measure.
We know much about Cameron, whose biography is the key to understanding and enjoying her work. She was a late starter, taking up photography at the age of 48 after her children gifted her a camera with the bidding “it may amuse you, mother”. Making up for lost time, Cameron then turned the camera on her friends, family and servants, using them as actors in biblical, allegorical and historical tableaux for the next eleven, brief years of her career. Cameron’s sitters—whose number included Charles Darwin and Alfred Lord Tennyson, sat in the studio she had converted from a chook house—were subjected to exposures of three to ten minutes, a period of torturous immobility that inevitably lent a unique gravity to the final image. Angels, Madonna’s, children and men all appear haunted, afflicted, stunned or miserable. Some of her works succeed in being the enigmatic and beautiful portraits she strove for. But, in this survey of more than 100 photographs from the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Cameron the auteur is the real subject of every image. It is the calamity and humour of her domestic and social life that is most keenly felt, rather than the gravity of the Christian scenes. 150 years after her first exhibition we may still be laughing at Cameron, but we are still looking too.
Until 25 October
Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Domain
Pic: Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, 1872 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.