The perfect Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition, according to Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum between 1970 and 2004, would have to be vast.
In order to do justice to the pioneering and prolific photographer, her portraits would have to be put into groupings that illustrated her passionate enthusiasm for religious iconology, female beauty, family, and men of scholarly and artistic achievement. The exhibition should contextualize her images by taking place in a venue that evoked the period in which Cameron lived, and also by showing the work of her contemporaries. There should be a section on her legacy and influence, including Sally Mann’s intimate but also theatrical family portraits from the 1980s and ’90s.
Perhaps most importantly, the exhibition would have to make it clear that the splotches, scratches and seeming lack of concern with sharp focus were part of Cameron’s quest to portray poetic truth, above and beyond the camera’s photographic fidelity.
The Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition currently at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum fulfills just about all of these criteria. Martha Weiss, the current curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, aims to present us with an authoritative inventory of Cameron’s image-making, which makes for an extraordinary exhibition experience, though not every individual image will necessarily “electrify and startle,” as Cameron hoped that her work would.
The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is a replica of a building designed in 1894 by Josiah Conder, a contemporary of Cameron, and the setting is uncannily fitting. The late-19th-century British drawing-room atmosphere of the Ichigokan is hard to beat as a venue to view Cameron’s distinguished portraits of Charles Darwin, Marianne North and Sir John Herschel, and romantic renditions of her maid and model Mary Hillier. Sure, the museum is a reconstruction, but then most of the photography is too.
Along with the heroic and archetypal nostalgia there is plenty of cringe-worthy Victorian stuff and nonsense. In a cheesy tableau entitled “Spear or Spare,” for example, adventurer Captain Tristram Speedy, can be seen dressed as an Ethiopian warrior pondering whether to kill a black man. Early grandiose attempts to use Hillier to personify different Christian virtues such as “Joy,” “Long-Suffering” and “Meekness,” in the 1864 series “Fruits of the Spirit” also fall pretty flat, as Hillier has the same miserable expression of “Can I go now?” in every picture.
Viewing Cameron’s missteps and successes together, though, is a deliberate part of the very contemporary curatorial vision; the experimentation is lauded as one of the things that keeps Cameron’s work relevant. If you want to go old school though, that favorite of Victorian England, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” has got you covered: “meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”
“From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron, a Woman who Breathed Life into Photographs” at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum runs until Sept. 19; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri until 8 p.m., Sept. 12-16 until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon. mimt.jp
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