This was an unofficial study visit centred on the exhibitions featuring the work of Julia Margaret Cameron at the Victoria and Albert museum and the Science Museum. In addition we also had time to see the work “Dark Mirror” by Richard Learoyd and a collection of both art and photography entitled “Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture” both at the Victoria and Albert museum.
We started off with looking at Learoyd’s work. As can be seen from the photo below the prints are a considerable size and, as a result of their means of production, are a true one-off. They are created by a room sized camera obscura, with the image being exposed directly on to photographic paper.
There was a mix of portraits , animals and the mirrors of the title. The pictures have a an amazing clarity, and it would appear a narrow depth of field (I’m not sure as to the lens used) as well as a (deliberately, it would appear) timeless quality about them. I thought they were marvellous and went back to see them again before I returned home.
I would imagine that the book of his work, no matter how well published would not be able to do justice to the real thing. I did have one criticism of the exhibition, nothing to do with the work itself but the way it was displayed. Because of the venue and its lighting works opposite were reflected in the work you were viewing and I am wondering whether it would have been more beneficial to either stagger the pictures (so they weren’t opposite each other) or just have them closer together down one wall.
The artist is giving a lecture on 10 February 2016 at the museum which I am hoping to attend.
We then went on to the V & A’s exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron.
The introduction to exhibition states that Cameron is “one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century.” and adds that “Her photographs were rule breaking: purposely out of focus, and often including scratches smudges and other traces of the artist’s process.”
At the risk of being contentious I have a couple of issues with these statements firstly I struggle to see how she could be regarded as innovative (other than perhaps in her habit of posing and dressing up her sitters.) as a lot of her portrait work is very similar to her contemporaries at the time (based on my admittedly limited research – for instance see http://www.cartedevisite.co.uk/) and I am not persuaded as to the “purposely out of focus” point as there are a significant number of her photos in focus. Judging by her letters on display she was a shrewd businesswoman (as well as not particularly modest) and I’m wondering if she used the out of focus angle as a USP in order to sell her work.
In any event her portraits are powerful and, viewed individually, some have both a potency and, in some cases a pathos, about them:-
However, to me there were almost too many pieces in this exhibition and, in my view, it could possibly have benefitted from some pruning so as to enable the viewer to concentrate on the best and/or most interesting of her work. On the other hand it could be agued that by including her, shall we say, less successful shots we get more of an insight into her working . To be fair that is certainly the case with several instances of alternative versions on display:-
The thought occurred to me while going round the exhibition that many of her photos could pass for paintings and her poses and lighting were, it seems to me, based on existing art rather than any innovative approach. It is of course possible that I am missing something. It is the case however that many of her portraits, irrespective of their technical merits, are historically important and valuable from that viewpoint alone.
We then went on to the collection of mixed media portraits “Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture”
This was a relatively small collection of works including artists such as Grayson Perry, Julian Opie, Thomas Ruff, Maud Sulter and Gavin Turk. I’m am unsure as to the basis of selection but it was an interesting mix of works
After Lunch we went to the Science Museum’s Cameron exhibition entitled Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy. It occurred to me that this exhibition, apart from a few artifacts, was not radically different from that of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s offering (and overlapped it in the duplication of some of her work)and it seemed a pity that the two could not have collaborated on a joint venture.
As it was, I preferred the presentation here as it seemed to show the work to better effect, albeit in a rather clinical white space, as opposed to the somewhat overpowering red of the V & A.
What I felt was missing from both exhibitions was any detailed desciption of her methods and indeed her influences. The “Annals of My Glass House” as mentioned in the top left photo below, and available via the link, indicates that a portrait was taken as “a Raphaelesque Madonna.” but that is the only indication of influence that’s explicit. As an aside “Annals” makes interesting reading as to how she views her own work – and those of others.
I have to admit that I did become a bit Cameroned out and remained unpersuaded, after seeing both exhibitions, that she was particularly innovative. She’s undoubtedly important to photographic history,if not just from the perspective of gender, but not in my view from a deliberate rule breaker point of view. It could be argued however that where she does stand out is the ability to promote her work, and all credit to her for doing so.
Annals of My Glass House can be found here:-