Posted by: madeleinerolson | November 12, 2018

A Comparison between Julia Margaret Cameron’s Madonnas

In her chapter, “To Make Mary: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs of Altered Madonnas “ from Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photography, Carol Mavor examines the multi-dimensional representations of Cameron’s subjects. As Mavor discusses, Cameron’s Madonna alluded photographs embody both reflections of the biblical Virgin and of Mary Hillier herself. I find this double identity fascinating and began thinking about how this serves Cameron’s photographic ambitions.


Left: La Madonna Esatta / Fervent in Prayer, 1865 ; Right: La Madonna della Pace / Perfect in Peace, 1865

Here we see two photographs with Mary Hillier as the sitter costumed as the Madonna. Put side by side, these two photographs show us how Cameron’s deliberative staging decisions classify her work as art photography. Mavor points out how “the deathly effect of the child stands in contrast to Hillier’s movement” (54). While the child’s remains still between both, we see Hillier’s face position has changed. The slight difference in Hillier’s head shows Cameron’s will to experiment in a theatrical way by playing with small alterations of the face angle. It is as if Cameron asks, “What would it look like if I positioned the head this way. What would it look like if I then positioned it that way?” There are certain creative choices to be made as a photographer, and Cameron demonstrates this to suggest photography was an art. The allusion to allegorical characters additionally begins to put her photographs in conversation with “high art.”

When I view Fervent in Prayer, I interpret a clear religious ode. Hillier’s face looks up as if at a heavenly light casting down upon her. She shows devotion and connection to an ethereal space. By not looking at the camera, Hillier is innocent from engaging from the viewer who gazes upon this scene. Instead, she becomes the pathway to the light shining down, guiding us to follow her look upwards to an unknown, presumably to a higher adoration. Here the Madonna  biblical sense of innocent devotion.

Meanwhile Hillier’s expression in Perfect in Peace looks less emotive, and dare I say, somewhat bored. Cameron lets us see her facial crease lines under her eyes, showing realistic human flesh. Hiller’s gaze targets you as a viewer. It targets someone on a level ground on earth, rather than something heavenly from above. Cameron has moved slightly closer to her subjects, allowing us to focusing on them, rather than creating space for another external existence as Fervent in Prayer does alludes to. Because we focus on the subjects rather than a suggested space, Perfect in Peace seems to fixate solely on her maternal devotion without as much religious duty as Fervent in Prayer does. While religious connotation exists in both, I see Cameron favoring realism by deliberately capturing Hillier’s look through the straight face angle, details of the skin, and an earthly grounding.

These subtle changes in positioning yield dramatically different interpretations. It makes sense Cameron’s work is can be classified as art photography because of the manipulations involved. Mavor notes Cameron unique choices with the medium. She would “physically scrub, scratch, brush, and fingerprint her glass plates” (48). Cameron must have wanted to assert her role as photographer. People often would call her a performer and stage director. Mavor notes how “she subjected them [her sitters] to hours of character modeling…no one could escape her artistic clutches” (45).

Beyond the photographer’s imprint, Perfect in Peace allows us to also recognize the actual sitter’s mark as Cameron allows Hillier to have a voice of her own. There are various ways to interpret Hillier’s expression. She looks unapologetic, somber and even irritated. I find this photograph perplexing because of its ambiguity because of these multiple possibilities that stray from portraying just a devotional look. The sitter has an agenda of her own that makes us question her complicity in Cameron’s staging. Mavor’s claim, that Cameron could “bypass the confines of her gender by enlarging the bourgeois Victorian woman’s part in both her art and life” (45) can be realized through the comparison of these two photographs. While Camerson can costume Hillier as the devotional and maternal Madonna expectation of woman, she allows Hillier’s individuality and all her complexities speak back.

In forcing her direction over her servants, as once quoted, “for my will against their will,” we might think she has disregarded the identities of her sitters for her own artistic endeavors. I actually see her close up focus and soft gaze as a move to invite the viewer into an experience of intimacy and lingering upon these subjects. Their flesh makes their presence seem very real. These photographs were placed in succession to one another in a special album Cameron presented to her friend, Lord Overstone (55) with Perfect in Peace proceeding after Fervent in Prayer. In doing so, this must have allowed any viewer to experience both Cameron and their own progression of deeper curiosity about the Madonna archetype.

There is a unique dynamic between misrepresentation and representing the Madonna idealization in her photos. Cameron’s rendering of the Madonna in these two photos reveal her use of the photographic medium to both obey and resist the maternal expectation of devotion.

-Madeleine Olson

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