a time before the snap


Tastes will shift again, no doubt, but right now, and on the evidence of the Met’s exhibit, this is what we value in the Cameron inheritance: the shock, and the privilege, of being looked at by persons from another time. They are clusters and nebulae—physically faded now, yet no less dazzling to the imagination than when they were first observed. The young woman photographed by Cameron in 1866, and boosted with a caption from Milton (“The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty”), should by rights be a ghost, peering from the depths of her damaged gloom; and yet, as Herschel said, in awe, “she is absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper into the air.” That mixture of romance and mug shot is threaded through Cameron’s portraits, and her concocted scenes of myth and legend are, similarly, suffused with sincerity and play alike. To that extent, she upheld the peculiar standards of her era, but in other ways she kept them at bay. Contrary to the promises of her daughter, the camera did not amuse her, in ladylike ease, as a fitting diversion for an amateur; it consumed her, firing a career and a faith. She neither resented nor ever relinquished her duties as a wife and mother, and was, in Woolf’s words, “like a tigress where her children were concerned”; she threatened to colonize other people like a one-woman empire. But the fact remains that, when her vocation arrived, in middle age, all her zest and enterprise, far from being frittered away, was driven to a concentrated point. Julia Margaret Cameron found her focus.

more from Anthony Lane at The New Yorker here.