The photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron provide an intriguing glimpse into the artistic life of the leisure class of Victorian England. They're remarkable for not only the aesthetic quality of a new creative form, but for what's suggested about the photographer herself and the world she lived in.
For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs is an exhibit of images compiled by Cameron and her sibling. The majority are Cameron's work, joined by images by Oscar Gustave Rejlander and other contemporaries. These are artists expressing themselves through a medium then primarily used for documentation.
Cameron, whose parents were a British official of the East India Company and a French aristocrat, ventured into photography when her daughter gave her a camera on her 48th birthday, in 1863. She immediately set to immortalizing fellow Isle of Wight residents with a fervor bordering on obsession. The 70 images at the Frick Art & Historical Center, organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, are divided into two categories. One is portraiture of either friends and families, lovingly depicted, or creative luminaries, including Tennyson and Longfellow, rendered heroic and godlike. The other category is staged shots, the subjects reinvented as saints and deities, hair flowing, serene of brow, vice-less.
In either case, no one seems quite human (with one notable exception), and maybe that's the point: These works were created in a world hell-bent on capturing Beauty. The pursuit wasn't confined just to the easily manipulated space within the frame, but applied to every aspect of life. That narrow focus demands a constant striving to celebrate one's devotion to splendor, and that devotion is well-captured. Compositionally, aesthetically, with maidens soft and dewy and men craggy and strong, there's no denying that these images are glorious.
Fantastic. Or at least it would be, if it were possible to view these images completely ignorant of context -- that is, ugliness. Viewers might supply their own historical context, and it might perturb. Images of indolent upper-class youths lolling about, after all, are one thing on their own, another when you recall they were recorded at a time when many children started working in factories, mills and mines as early as age 3. Beauty was the exclusive province of one sparsely populated class; the masses got squalor.
Besides her portraits of "heroic" artists, friends and family, Cameron frequently enlisted one of her servants, Mary Hillier, to masquerade as figures distant from the plebeian strata. Hillier is a lovely subject and portrayed with grace and dignity, but one can't help but wonder whether Hillier's frequent sessions replicating the Virgin Mary for Cameron's lens spared her some of her drudgery or added hours to her day.
It's also difficult not to be affronted by Rejlander's shots of gentlewomen dressed up as maids, pretending to draw water from wells. One doesn't want to believe that this session constituted conscious mockery of one class by another. Yet the ignorance required to perceive this kind of dress-up game as acceptable is astonishing.
The shots of children, meanwhile, go beyond otherworldliness to edge next to the eerie. In the manner of the day, the children look doggedly serious, sharply focused on the distance -- except when said toddlers are subjected to such fancies as being armed with arrows to ape Eros. One of the most disquieting works depicts an unidentified child of 4 or 5 reclining on a large stuffed chair, her bare legs stretched out in a pose reminiscent of the Naked Maja, her gaze at the viewer unsettlingly direct and challenging. Unlike the other staged shots, there's no elaborate costuming or gauzy romance, and the girl projects a similar hardness. This is the sole work in the collection representing the visual arts of a creator better known for his literature, Lewis Carroll.
The Frick is a fitting home for this exhibition; the grandeur of the estate of one of the most infamous of robber barons is somewhere the privileged class would have been comfortably at home. What's heartening is that the mansion that once served as residence for a few is now a museum open to many, including the descendants of the workers whose sweat paid for the opulence. And it is workers who provide that lone exception to the unearthliness dominating the collection.
In one of Rejlander's shots, Cameron is shown greeting the postman (who looks confused at the whole situation) with several maids. Two of these women face the camera full on, one smiling shyly and one outright beaming. They're servants, they're not dressed up as divinities, and they're unmistakably vital and alive.
For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs continues through Jan. 2. Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 412-371-0600