Review by Melanie Chapman •
Crumple the Dress, Handle Tenderly the Lens
Arresting Beauty, the new Thames and Hudson publication of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) is truly a thing of beauty to behold and be held. Drawing from the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum (home to the world’s largest collection of Cameron’s groundbreaking photography) this collection of more than 120 images serves as an impressive introduction to Cameron’s unique vision.
For those not familiar with her work or life story, it may be a surprise to learn that Cameron did not begin her photographic endeavors until she was 48 years old, and during the eleven years in which she dedicated herself to the craft, she produced thousands of romantic and haunting images. Without formal training, Cameron mastered the use of a cumbersome camera and large format negatives to create intimate portraits and lyrical scenes inspired by Italian Old Masters.
Though (in some cases harshly) criticized at the time for her choice of soft focus, Cameron’s intention was to eschew the documentation trend in photography and aimed more for a more painterly representation of beauty not only of the world around her but also in the works of artists who had come before her. Convincing relatives, neighbors, and often household servants, to pose for the long exposure times required, Cameron often portrayed her subjects in natural light against dark backgrounds or walls, loose curls gently framing the women and girls as if angels and Madonnas. Fabrics are draped around cherubic young children, grapes and stars are woven into her sitters’ hair to reference Greek myths and biblical passages. Even distinguished friends such as the poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow became willing subjects in front of her lens.
Divided into three sections (The Art of Photography, Pioneering Portraits, Cameron’s Storytelling) and accompanied by pages of her handwritten manifesto “Annals of my Glass House”, Arresting Beauty is a treasure of a book, luxurious to the touch, and full of interesting details about Cameron’s life, her inspirations, her process, and the people she photographed.
To view these gorgeous images on a well printed page, rather than as digital files illuminated from behind on a screen, is to make yet another case for the value of experiencing photographs in a book. Authors Lisa Springer and Marta Weiss, both curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum, do an excellent job of providing context, including the sexist derision Cameron withstood in her lifetime, to make their own (indisputable) case as to why, nearly 150 years later, the portrait photography of an upper-class woman from India still has the power to soothe and inspire us.
Melanie Chapman is a Contributing Editor and a Southern California photographer
Arresting Beauty, Julia Margaret Cameron
Photographer: Julia Margaret Cameron (born in Calcutta 1815, died in Sri Lanka 1879)
Text by Lisa Springer and Marta Weiss
Excerpts of “Annals of My Glass House” written by Julia Margaret Cameron
Published by Victoria and Albert Museum/Thames and Hudson, copyright 2023
Hardcover book, stitched binding, 208 pages, 126 illustrations/photographs, printed and bound in China by C&C Offset Printing Co., ISBN 978-0-500-48086-1
Designed by Myfanwy Vernon-Hunt, This-Side.co.uk
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.
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