Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In

National Portrait Gallery (London), Mar-Jun/24

Francesca Woodman (1958-81) and Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), two of the most influential photographers, are showcased in Portrait to Dream In at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Curated by Magdalene Kearney, the exhibition compares the two artists by presenting 160 rare vintage prints from both, offering a comprehensive survey of their careers and suggesting new perspectives on their works. The focus is on their experience in exploring and expanding the possibilities of photographic image-making.

Both artists’ careers began with a gift: Cameron received a sliding box camera from her daughter at the age of 48, while Woodman received a Yashica camera from her father when she was 13. These gifts enabled them to pursue their ideas of picture-taking, appearance, the muse, gender, archetypes, and storytelling, particularly significant at a time when few women were represented in photography.

Untitled, New York, c.1979-80, by Francesca Woodman

The exhibition adopts a thematic approach, exploring themes such as Declaring Intentions and Claiming Space, Angels and Otherworldly Beings, Mythology, Doubling, Nature and Femininity, Caryatids and Classical Form, and Men and Models and Muses. Declaring Intentions and Claiming Space serves as their starting point, with Cameron’s “Annie, My First Success” (1864) and Woodman’s “Self-portrait at Thirteen” (1972) marking pivotal moments in their careers.

Untitled, Stanwood, Washington, 1979, by Francesca Woodman

Julia Margaret Cameron came from a privileged background and lived in India, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom. She was self-taught, produced prints from glass plate negatives, and was unconcerned with producing perfect prints, often incorporating accidents from the darkroom in her image-making process. On the other hand, Woodman was exposed to art at an early age by her artist parents, received formal training at art school in the United States and Italy, and explored various camera technologies, ultimately favouring square film-based negatives.

Woodman believed photography could be a space “for the viewer to dream in,” with Cameron also exploring this idea in her work. They both navigated the boundary between fact and fiction in their photographs. In Cameron’s “The Dream,” a portrait of Mary Hiller, her domestic help and muse, based on John Milton’s poem, smudged fingerprints on the final print serve as a tactile reminder, pulling the viewer back from the dream-like state.

I Wait (Rachel Gurney), 1872 by Julia Margaret Cameron

Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron were fascinated by angels, beings that can transition between spiritual and earthly realms, often appearing in dreams or visions. They aimed to depict femininity using mythological, classical, and biblical symbols.

In Angels and Otherworldly Beings, Woodman appears to float in the air in front of wings made from a pair of sheets attached to the windows of a derelict industrial space. The Angels Series draws from the artist’s knowledge of Italy’s religious iconography and architecture, providing a stage for these otherworldly beings. In other photographs from the series, angels are represented abstractly, with bodies appearing or disappearing in space, hanging from door frames, torsos bent backwards, and bodies blurred or hidden.

Cameron’s angels are represented in the tradition of nineteenth-century Christian iconography. She also created her own narratives, drawing from literature and evoking auras, halos and clouds from darkroom effects.

Polka Dots #5, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976, by Francesca Woodman

Despite working for brief but intense periods, Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron neither experienced widespread acclaim during their lifetimes. However, their legacies have been reevaluated and celebrated in the years following their deaths.
Both artists departed from the conventions of portraiture, exploring beyond mere representation; they were deeply curious about the potential of photography itself, pushing the boundaries of what the medium could achieve and what it could signify. Through their legacy, Woodman and Cameron continue to inspire and influence generations of photographers.

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