Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: experimental photography

“Just over 100 years separate the creative lives of Julia Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman,” said Sean O’Hagan in The Observer. The former was English, “a Victorian pioneer of imaginative photographic portraiture”; the latter a 20th century American photographer who made “performative and mysteriously elusive self-portraits”. Cameron (1815-1879) came late to photography, in her 50s; Woodman took her own life aged just 22 in 1981. As such, to present their work side by side, as this exhibition does, might seem strange. The show, however, seeks to demonstrate the ways both women used portraiture to create black-and-white images that transcended the simple idea of creating a likeness. Both, the curators argue, blurred the boundary between fact and fiction in their work; and they shared an interest in using photography to evoke spectral, dream-like atmospheres. The “dialogue” the show establishes highlights “creative connections” between the two artists across the eras, and while the parallels it makes are sometimes “tenuous”, it is always “fascinating”.

Cameron was “one of the most important contributors to the early days of photography”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Her portraits of eminent Victorians – Darwin, Tennyson, Carlyle – still “adorn our school textbooks”, and “her softly focused visions of angelic children” introduced a distinctly feminine quality to the medium. She worked with “a large fixed-plate camera that produced thrillingly detailed negatives”. The work she described as her first “success” is a portrait of a friend’s daughter; the child’s face “fills the frame with juvenile sweetness” but there is also a hint of “tragedy” – something that became Cameron’s calling card. This photo is displayed alongside Woodman’s first work – a self-portrait created when she was 13, in which she hides her face “behind a shower curtain of hair”. Where Cameron’s work is “bold and close”, Woodman’s is blurry, introspective, nervy – and tiny. These two photos have almost nothing in common, and nor do the two artists.

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