Photography and the poetic

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel at the Sepulchre, 1866

Given Madame Yevonde’s use of photography to retell classical myths in the mid 1930s, the relationship between storytelling and photography clearly goes way back. But though Madame Yevonde’s use of colour was unusual and though her images were genuinely different, even eighty years ago the ides of using photography to represent old narratives wasn’t a new one. In fact it’s essentially as old as photography itself.

The Rosebud Garden of Girls, 1868

Cameron’s work was clearly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites – that long curly hair, those distant looks – some of whom she photographed. Like Madeame Yevonde, Julia Maragaret Cameron made staged pictures with narratives drawn from myth and also from poetry; indeed Alfred Lord Tennyson, who she both knew and had photographed, asked her to illustrate his collection Idylls of the King.

The Guardian Angel (Hattie Campbell), 1868

The models for many of the allegorical pictures were often family members, including Cameron’s children and grandchildren and the children of those around her. Her niece, Julia Prinsep Stephen, who wrote a biography of Cameron, was the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

St Agnes, 1864

There are a number of things that interest me about Cameron’s work. Firstly the relationship between her pictures and painting is interesting in the context of contemporary photography and the way in which people like Jeff Wall reference painting. It’s also interesting that Cameron consistently put the case for photography as art, an argument that took a long to properly be won in Britain in particular (the Museum of Modern Art in New York started collecting photographs in the 1930s, until surprisingly recently Tate only acquired photographs by those who also worked in other media such as performance documented photographically; the first significant exhibition of photography at Tate as Cruel and Tender in 2003). Mainly though, I’m fascinated by the pictures as a document of nineteenth century life and in particular the life of the writers and artists who Cameron photographed.

1 thought on “Photography and the poetic

  1. Cameron was the first photographer I fell in love with…her work is simultaneously present and ethereal. Thank you for this post.

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