Julia Margaret Cameron // Unknown Woman or Madonna // England // March 1868 // Albumen Print

Welcome to #11 in our new series Poignant Pics where I’ve asked photo curators, collectors and makers to write about a photograph or two that, in one way or another, has significantly impacted their cerebral cortex. For our last  entry from the group exhibition “A Cartography of Dreams” at Dimbola Museum Galleries produced by Reclaim Photography Festival, we welcome the curator Maxine Watts.

Maxine talks about one image by Julia Margaret Cameron that still holds the same power today, as it did when she first discovered photography.

‘It may amuse you mother to try to photograph’

Julia Margaret Cameron was given her first camera by her first child and only daughter, Julia Norman, at the end of 1863, when she was forty-eight years old. This is one of the few portraits that Julia Margaret Cameron made of her daughter, and it takes on a special poignancy for me given her subsequent death during childbirth.

This is a portrait which embodies all of the qualities I adore about Julia Margaret Cameron’s work. Although we are unable to look into the eyes of Julia Norman, her face, shrouded in a dark robe, draped delicately in light and shadow, portrays a melancholic quality, evoking a sense of sadness, loss and regret through the penetrating intensity of the image.

On a technical level, this is an incredibly accomplished use of lighting and it also demonstrates her proficiency in controlling the lens. This is an image which sits in striking contrast to the softer, and more flattering lighting images of her portraits of family and friends, studies of fair women and heroic men, and her illustrations for Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’.

Julia Margaret Cameron was the first female photographer whose work I discovered when I began my photography studies at college, and I would often compare and contrast her artistry and imagination with that of the contemporary female portrait photographers I went on to discover such as Imogen Cunningham and Cindy Sherman.

Her dying word was ‘beautiful’, which perfectly encapsulates the essence of this portrait.

– Maxine Watts

Maxine Watts is the Artistic Director of Reclaim Photography Festival. She is also a lecturer living and working in the West Midlands (UK). Maxine studied Photography at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design. She also received a First Class Honours degree in Post Compulsory Education, at the University of Wolverhampton, for her research related to the pedagogy, identity and expertise of teaching photography in an FE context. Maxine is deeply interested in the social narrative of photography, the events, people and places, past and present, who invite us to share their stories through the images they inhabit.

Maxine organized the group exhibition, “A Cartography of Dreams” at Dimbola Museum & Galleries with the works of artists Paul Biddle, Fran Forman, Tami Bone, and Jonah Calinawan. The exhibition was produced by Reclaim Photography Festival in association with Dimbola Museum & Galleries. Don’t miss this show that runs to January 1, 2017!

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