Through Cameron’s Camera

James Polchin considers the work of 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron:

Compared to the standards of photographic portraits of her time Cameron’s famous men dish_cameron look utterly frail. … We encounter the faces of Victorian England’s great men as if they were butchers or the shop owners, unmasked by whatever grandness the camera was meant to bestow. It is a different kind of realism that feels more akin to the late 20th century than of middle of the 19th.

If her famous men were caught in their ordinary humanness, her women take on the utterly mythic, a poised and sensitive beauty. In “Sappho,” for example, the woman’s profile is acutely detailed against the dark background, the light washing along her forehead and nose. Her jewel necklace and embroidered dress glimmer with less precision. The work recalls that of early Renaissance paintings. Or more accurately, it conjures the Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism of the era that Cameron knew quiet well. Sappho here is believed to be a housemaid at Freshwater, transformed into something more ethereal, the image of a Greek poet. In many of these female portraits, Cameron turns the margins into the ideal, and the ideal into the human.

(Image of Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867, via Wikimedia Commons)