An exhibition of portraits by 19th century British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron will be on view at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs from October 4 through November 18, 2011. Julia Margaret Cameron marks the first time in more than a dozen years that an exhibition of her work has been shown in New York City. More than 20 albumen prints from 1864 to 1874 will be on view. Most of the photographs were gifts from the artist to her niece, Adeline Maria Jackson; they have remained in the family ever since and have never been exhibited. A fully illustrated catalogue by the photographic historian Dr. Larry J. Schaaf will accompany the exhibition.
Among the 19th century's greatest portraitists, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) began her career in photography at the age of 48 when she received a camera as a gift from her daughter. She created the majority of her work at her home in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, an island in the English Channel. Cameron moved in the highest circles of Victorian society and counted artists, writers, and scientists among her close friends. Her famous portrait subjects included the astronomer Sir John Herschel, the naturalist Charles Darwin, the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, and the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
"For better or for worse, her photographs have always been show-stoppers in any exhibition. They are unlike the work of her contemporaries, and perhaps are more often echoed in modern photography. Big, bold, and penetrating, they are at the same time incredibly natural, indeed, comfortable to behold," writes Schaaf in the catalogue essay. "The beautiful simplicity of Cameron's compositions belies their wonderfully complex underpinnings, for the truth and clarity in them emerges from the delightful contradictions of the woman herself. In her day, her work was perhaps better understood by traditional artists and the general public than by members of the photographic community."
Among the highlights of the exhibition is a carbon print of A Beautiful Vision, Julia Duckworth, 1872, Cameron's cherished niece and goddaughter. Born Julia Jackson, she was a frequent sitter and provided inspiration for her aunt's photographs. She later became the mother of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
Mary Hillier, a local shoemaker's daughter who served as a parlor maid in Cameron's household, became, as the artist wrote, "one of the most beautiful and constant of my models." In The Dream, 1869, and Madonna and Child, 1866, Cameron succeeds in capturing the rare essence of her pre-Raphaelite beauty, "in which commoners were temporarily elevated to a status they would never know in their everyday life," notes Schaaf.
A portrait of Sir John Herschel from 1867 is considered one of the most iconic images of the distinguished astronomer. As it turned out, Herschel was among Cameron's strongest supporters. While he was an exacting scientist, Herschel understood how Cameron's atypical way of focusing the camera and the frequent technical anomalies in her work were subservient to her pursuit of beauty and poetry.
"I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me," wrote Charles Darwin about one of the portraits that Cameron made of him in 1868. Darwin was working on The Descent of Man, his second landmark book on evolution, when illness forced him to take a break in Freshwater that summer. Darwin's son remembered that Cameron "received the whole family with open-hearted kindness and hospitality, and my father always retained a warm feeling of friendship for her." The print of this portrait of the famous evolutionary biologist is a rare variant from the series of portraits she completed during his visit.
As Schaaf concludes in the catalogue essay, "Unlike many of the finest 19th-century photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron never really dropped out of the history and never needed to be rediscovered. Perhaps through the efforts of her son, H.H. Hay Cameron, and somewhat through association with her many famous sitters, her photographs continued to enthrall audiences and challenge successive waves of new photographers."