Posted by: millyc13 | December 4, 2011

Julia Margaret Cameron and Joyce Tenneson

In the summer of 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing some original photographs taken by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. These moving and mysterious images are hard to shake from your mind, especially once you have seen them in person. What made them all the more exciting was their paring with contemporary photographer Joyce Tenneson (1945-   ).  Both photographers are interested in ethereal light and the subjects of women, children, and motherhood. The similarities in style and subject are quite striking:


What do you find similar? What seems different?


For more images by Tenneson, her portfolio can be found here:

And more information on the exhibit “Kindred Spirits” can be found here:


  1. These images are fascinating! I feel as though the Tenneson images are visually more obviously provocative than the Cameron images are, as the first one exposes a woman’s breast, and the second one shows the embrace of two, clearly unclothed twin sisters. However, there is something about the Cameron images that seems as though it might provoke more conversation. I remember vividly the conversation we had in class about the Cameron photographs, and the one on the cover, of the two small children embracing, in particular. I was quite frankly amazed at just how much we could break down about the image of the small children; what exactly it meant that they seemed to be kissing, the fact that their relationship to each other (friends, sibling, etc) might influence one’s opinion on the photograph, and also mainly our discussion about the intrusiveness a lot of us felt at looking at such an intimate photograph, almost as if we weren’t supposed to be looking at it. I think that despite the fact that the Tenneson images physically show us more of the body and are in a sense perhaps more sexualized, they still feel less intrusive and provocative than the Cameron photographs. It’s almost as if by being given permission by the subjects of the Tenneson photographs to look at what we’re shown, they seem more “appropriate” to view.

  2. I love this comparison – thank you for introducing me Tenneson. I find the stylistic similarities between JMC and Tenneson undeniable, largely due to the direct gaze of the adult women in these photos. The first comparison (Cameron’s “Perfect in Peace” and Tenneson’s “Laura and Isaac”) resonates most strongly with me because of the gazes of the mothers. Neither of these mother figures look at her child, thus evading sentimental or protective characterization. They hold their children in their arms, at chest level and allow their faces to become distinct focal points in the photograph. The self-isolation of the face leads me to believe that the mothers have autonomy over their poses and, subsequently, their own conceptions and performances of motherhood. While I understand that JMC and Tenneson directed these shots and poses, I still find it important that *women* photographers isolated the faces of mothers, individualizing them and releasing them from visual (and ideological) tethers to their limiting biological role. Though the children are bound to these women – by their arms (“Perfect”) and their breasts (“Laura”) – their striking faces and direct confrontation of the viewer enable them to both claim and transcend the role of mother.

    I agree with the above commenter, that the Tenneson photos are more sexualized, but I don’t think that either of these are problematically intrusive. The distance between the faces of the child and its mother makes the photo less intimate than, say, the JMC photographs such as “The Double Star” or “The Kiss of Peace.” Upon viewing the photo, we certainly are faced with (we face?) the sanctity of a mother-child relationship or bond, yet these women do not seem startled, as if they are used to such intrusion or exploitation. (Recall the iconography, mostly symbolical and religious, of mother and child – for example, Madonna and Child.) Their expressions are neither startled, defensive, nor pleased – they look to us, accompanied by their child. These photos draw me in: what is the expression of the mother, if it is not something so easily discerned? What are these women thinking, and how do they want us to think of them?

    After reading Carol Mavor’s chapter on JMC, I cannot help but think of the contradictions of Victorian notions of motherhood, what Mavor describes as “the double-bind of having to be a mother… without acting upon her sexuality so as to announce her sexual difference” (52). Mavor makes a good point: Victorian mothers had to choose between sexuality and immaculate motherhood. Tenneson and JMC’s photos were so subversive because the women in the photographs don’t ‘choose.’ They blur the boundaries of portraiture, intimate/erotic photography, images of the Madonna, and sentimental depictions of mother and child. To me, they break from this “double-bind,” yet I still can’t tell where they’ve ended up.

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