Soft Focus: Julia Margaret Cameron at the Met

Thomas Carlyle, 1867

Thomas Carlyle, 1867

A delightfully small photography exhibition up at the Met displays early photography from a woman who cut a decidedly aesthetic path. Julia Margaret Cameron began taking photographs in 1863, about a decade after the wet-plate collodion process had been introduced and in the midst of contemporary debate about whether photography could be a form of fine art akin to painting or sculpture. Cameron inscribed a print of the powerful portrait above: “Carlyle like a rough block of Michelangelo’s sculpture,” claiming an artistic lineage not popularly given to photography at the time. At the same time, the great virtue of photography–it’s presumed truthfulness–was eschewed by Cameron for an aesthetic of soft focus and artful composition.


Pomona, 1872

Seemingly a dauntless personality, Cameron’s led a rich and intrepid life as a women in Victorian England and was connected to many cultural figures–from her grandniece Virginia Woolfe to the PRB –who appear in her portraits. Pomona, above, is an allegorical scene modeled by Alice Liddell (as a little girl, Liddell was Lewis Caroll’s Alice for Alice in Wonderland). Allegorical scenes, elaborate tableaux, and soft focus portraits were as uncommon as a woman wielding a camera at the time, and regardless are well-worth seeing in their own right. Julia Margaret Cameron is up at the Met through January 5.


Circe, 1865


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