Curating the Imperfect
Madeline Yale Preston interviews Dr. Marta Weiss
The subtitle “Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world” is an alluringly contemporary introduction to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Curated by the museum’s curator of photographs Dr. Marta Weiss, the exhibition features highlights from the V&A’s collection of Cameron’s works and related ephemera and travels through 2016 to Moscow, Ghent, Sydney, London, Madrid and Tokyo. Madeline Yale Preston discusses the exhibition with Weiss in London.
MYP: I loved receiving a card from you last June that celebrated Julia Margaret Cameron’s 200th birthday. Can you tell me more about the significance of 2015?
MW: Cameron is one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. The year 2015 marks the bicentenary of her birth and also the 150th anniversary of her first museum exhibition, and her only museum exhibition in here lifetime, held in 1865 here at the South Kensington Museum, which now the V&A.
MYP: I understand the V&A played a pivotal role in the development of her career.
MW: Yes, the museum has a remarkable history with Cameron’s career, starting in 1865 when the V&A collected over 100 of her works. The V&A was the only museum in the world to collect works by Cameron in depth during her lifetime.
MYP: Can you tell me more about how you curated this exhibition?
MW: What I wanted to do in the exhibition was to celebrate these two events and also tell the story of her relationship with the V&A. We now have over 250 photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron in the collection and we also have five letters from Cameron to Henry Cole, the founding director of the museum.
The exhibition is structured around four of those letters to Henry Cole. Each section of the exhibition starts with one of the letters, and it worked out very nicely that I was able to keep them in chronological order so the exhibition gives a sense of her development as an artist.
Cameron acquired her first camera in 1863 at the age of 48. She took the first photograph that she considered her first success in January of 1864, and then amazingly by May of 1865, Henry Cole writes in his diary that he was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, “in her style”. It is remarkable that within 18 months she is already being described as having a style of her own. Within a month after that, the museum began to acquire her work.
MYP: She had an extraordinarily quick ascension to photographic fame. How would you describe her style? What makes her photography so remarkable?
MW: Her photographs are larger and much, much closer than typical portraits at the time. She pioneered the ‘close up’ at a time when the dominant type of portraiture was the carte de visite, a small, calling card-sized photograph that generally showed either just a half length portrait or a full length portrait. She used a wet collodion process, working initially with a 12x10 inch negative and soon moved to using a larger camera that held a 15x12 inch negative. She made contact prints from these glass negatives.
Cameron was more-or-less the first person to take photographs purposely out of focus. She focused it to the point that she thought made it beautiful – which meant she took photographs that were often slightly out of focus.
MYP: I find the differential focus in the portrait of Julia Jackson (1867) – Cameron’s niece and the mother of Virginia Woolf – quite captivating.
MW: She also left traces of her process evident on her photographs. You see lots of imperfections that other photographers would dismiss as flaws, but she seemed to accept them at the very least, and possibly embrace; for example, swirls where she didn’t apply the photographic chemicals evenly, she used impure chemicals, she got dust on the negative, or she smudged it with her fingers on the prints.
MYP: It seems she was highly experimental relative to many of her contemporaries. I’m aware that photographers like Gustav Le Gray began experimenting with splicing together two negatives just before she did, like in Hosanna (1865), yet it seems she was concurrently using several different techniques that pushed many of the medium’s then-existing boundaries.
MW: She was heavily criticized for the use of these techniques at the time. The photographic press attacked her then for being an incompetent photographer and technician. She was a rule breaker and a pioneer, and it took awhile for others to catch up with her ideas.
MYP: I find it interesting that the literary press was far more forgiving of Cameron’s work then – some were even congratulatory – versus the photographic press in her lifetime.
MW: Cameron moved in very artistic circles. She was good friends and neighbors with G.F. Watts, an artist of the day, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I think she might have had some of the influences in common with her artistic and literary peers. The people who initially supported her were members of that literary elite. Her photographs weren’t so literal and left something to the imagination. They were described as being very poetic and were compared to Old Master paintings, in particular ones from the early Renaissance. Some are quite literally based on paintings by Raphael.
She believed strongly in photography as art, at a time when photography’s status was being very much debated. Attacks in the photographic press came early in her career. When she died, there were obituaries in the photographic press that praised her uniqueness and what she did for photography.
MYP: Could we view Cameron as a forerunner for the Pictorialist movement?
MW: Though she was the first person to extensively make photographs out of focus, I wouldn’t argue that the Pictorialist movement is owed to her. She died in 1879, and shortly after that, the first photographer to really promote her was P.H. Emerson, who was extremely influential for the Pictorialist movement. He then theorized the idea of differential focus, arguing photography should imitate how we see.
MYP: What has Cameron’s presence been at the V&A over time?
MW: We almost always have something by Cameron from our permanent collection on display. The idea of organizing an exhibition dedicated exclusively to her work was quite overdue.
MYP: How have you endeavored to make this exhibition relevant for contemporary audiences?
MW: To a certain extent I haven’t worried about that too much. I think there are a few things about Cameron’s images that will hopefully appeal to contemporary audiences, such as presence of the artist’s hand and the fact that these are clearly not cold, machine-made images. These are hand-made images that carry with them the traces of the artist’s process. I think that today people are starting to get a little bit tired of perfect, Photoshopped, crisp images. And of course there is the more general revival of analogue processes, and these images will appeal to that kind of contemporary interest in photography.
When I was thinking about the design of the book and the design of the exhibition, I was keen to get the right balance between doing something that didn’t clash with Cameron’s 19th century work and making it relevant to a contemporary audience. I wanted to let the photographs speak for themselves but also give them a framing that makes them contemporary and not overly historicized and Victorian, and therefore perhaps inaccessible.
MYP: What has been your experience of conceptualizing this show for different venues and audiences?
MW: It has been enormously satisfying to travel our Cameron collection and to share it with so many different audiences. Each venue is a very different type of museum and it has been nice to see Cameron shown in relation to other objects. In Moscow, it was exhibited in a museum of photography, whereas other museums are survey museums focused on fine art, which I think would have thrilled Julia Margaret Cameron herself.
Usually a show starts at the V&A and tours afterwards. Because of how the scheduling worked out, the V&A venue is in the middle of the tour. It has given me a chance to see how the hang works in all these different spaces and refine it a little bit along the way.
MYP: Have you made any discoveries in your research?
MW: We discovered that a group of approximately 70 photographs in the collection had previously belonged to Cameron’s friend G.F. Watts. Many are extreme examples of Cameron’s experimental qualities. These are photographs she sent to Watts to comment on; he said to her, “Send me your defective, unmounted impressions”.
The research that I’ve done in preparation to this exhibition has led to a rethinking of the “flaw” in Cameron’s work. She wasn’t as accepting of these flaws as we have tended to think. I believe that she was striving to overcome those things more than we have given her credit for in the past. That story is present in the exhibition and I describe it more extensively in the exhibition catalogue.
MYP: The catalogue goes into great depth and also lists all of the V&A’s holdings of Cameron’s work.
MW: There’s a lot of scholarship that went into this exhibition. With the exhibition itself, I wanted to make it an enjoyable and digestible experience for people, but I was able to delve into her work much more deeply in the catalogue. Cameron’s photographs are among the stars of our collection, it was time to give her that kind of treatment.
For more information, visit www.vam.ac.uk.
Marta Weiss is Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She joined the V&A in 2007 after two years in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She holds a BA in the history of art from Harvard and an MA and PhD from Princeton in the same field, with a focus on the history of photography. She is the author of two books and numerous articles and catalogue essays on topics ranging from Victorian photocollage to Diane Arbus. She has curated exhibitions at the Princeton University Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the V&A, including Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s (2015);Making It Up: Photographic Fictions (2013); and Light from the Middle East: New Photography (2012). She is the curator of the international touring exhibition Julia Margaret Cameron, and author of the accompanying catalogue, Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with you delight and startle the world, published by the V&A and MACK.
Madeline Yale Preston is an independent curator and writer of photography. She resides in Dubai and London, where she is pursuing her doctorate on the photographic art history of the Middle East.