Thursday, September 5, 2013
September 2, 2013 Issue
“The thing itself,” as Edward Weston called the object of his quest for realism, is what I seek when I look at photographs. Before I read Janet Malcolm’s great “The Genius of the Glass House” (in her recent collection Forty-five False Starts) I didn’t see it in Julia Margaret Cameron’s work, at least not in her posed costume dramas, what she called her “fancy subject pictures.” They seemed to me to be as artificial as fashion photos. But Malcolm’s piece showed me the way. In “The Genius of the Glass House,” she says,
But it is precisely the camera’s realism – its stubborn obsession with the surface of things – that has given Cameron’s theatricality and artificiality its atmosphere of truth. It is the truth of the sitting, rather than the fiction that all the dressing up was in aid of, that wafts out of these wonderful and strange, not-quite-in-focus photographs. They are what they are: pictures of housemaids and nieces and husbands and village children who are dressed up as Madonnas and infant Jesuses and John the Baptists and Lancelots and Guineveres and trying desperately hard to sit still.
How I love that steely “They are what they are.” Malcolm scans Cameron’s “fancy subject pictures” searching for hard reality. She excepts one picture from her reality test: Cameron’s The Passing of Arthur, of which she says,
Yes, the broomsticks and the muslim curtains are there, but they are insignificant. For once, the homely truth of the sitting gives right of place to the romantic fantasy of its director. The picture, a night scene, is magical and mysterious.
I thought of Malcolm’s reading of The Passing of Arthur as I read Anthony Lane’s wonderful “Names and Faces,” in this week’s New Yorker. It’s a review of the Met’s Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition. His response to Cameron’s work differs from Malcolm’s. He doesn’t look for the “reality” traces. He doesn’t notice the misery of the costumed sitters “trying desperately hard to sit still.” He does see the romance and the comedy. He says her “concocted scenes of myth and legend” are “suffused with sincerity and play alike.” Lane himself is a playful critic, more so than Malcolm is. He appears to approach Cameron on her own terms and to submit to whatever spell she’s trying to cast. Regarding her King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to his Three Daughters, he says,
Charles, complete with coronet, is in position, keeping a laudably straight face and grasping what is meant to be a regal scepter, or staff, but may well be the fireplace poker. The outcome, despite everything, is not wholly absurd; there is a distracted magic to its air of ceremony.
I enjoyed Lane’s piece immensely. His description of Cameron’s 1867 masterpiece, Julia Jackson, is inspired (and witty): “Though the backdrop may be sepia and moody, the subject is alert in her modernity and ravenous for experience. You could post her on Instagram right now.”