Posted by: turne23k | December 10, 2020

Touching Women: Julia Margaret Cameron and Haptic Temporalities

In her work on Julia Margaret Cameron, Carol Mavor writes that “while there are no pictures of Cameron really touching an actual Mary Hillier, there are many pictures of Hiller touching other women” (66). Noting specifically Cameron’s 1869 work The Kiss of Peace, Mavor seems to suggest that Hillier’s touch in the photograph is transitive, reaching forward beyond the photograph to encompass and become entangled with Cameron’s own. Thinking through Cameron’s “touch” begins also to engage with the photography on a metatextual level, as we consider that her physical imprint saturates all of her photography at every level. Metaphors for thinking through art creation can help us here, as we consider Cameron’s work in terms of her “fingerprints,” her “guiding hand.” Her photography is profoundly haptic, considering touch in the ghosting of Hillier’s lips on the forehead of her younger companion, the tangle and blur of Hillier’s hair over her shoulders, the folds of fabric that drape over the subjects’ bodies. One can easily imagine Cameron’s own hands staging the photography, arranging cloth, hair and lighting, brushing across her models’ bodies as she arranges them precisely according to her liking. In the photographs’ blurred, ephemeral quality we can also read Cameron’s literal touch, arranging lens focus and pressing fingers against photo plates. In cracking, smudging, and occasionally literally carving into plate glass, Cameron impressed her touch on an art form which was often associated with objectivity, precision, clarity — emphasizing the evidence of physical touch rather than erasing it, as she was “meant” to do.

Of The Kiss of Peace, Mavor writes that Hillier’s “arousing and impressive display of hair” — one of the most visually tactile, textured, tangible elements of the piece — “clouds the picture,” from a literal and interpretive perspective. “‘Mary’ appears to be as much Magdalene as Virgin. This trick of offletting Hillier’s hair out to weave two discourses together, the pure and impure, both of which are contained by the signifier ‘Mary,’ is a stratagem that Cameron played out in many of her pictures. Such play between categories makes for a slippery kiss that smacks of unholy devotion” (Mavor 66). I am fascinated by the way hair, and in particular Hillier’s hair, operates to weave together physical and interpretive strategies of Cameron’s work, as Hillier’s physical body makes meaning in multiple ways. Just as her hair “weaves” together the discourses of purity and impurity, Virgin and Magdalene, it also weaves together several of Cameron’s photos. Though The Kiss of Peace and an earlier photograph of Cameron’s, The Double Star, do not explicitly feature mirrors, I read them as reflections of each other, just as they each depict reflected or doubled female figures. They are woven together, along with much of Cameron’s other photography, by Hillier’s hair, which flows, unruly and unbound through The Kiss of Peace, and — perhaps Hillier’s perhaps another woman’s — is caught again and frozen in the lower corner of The Double Star, cutting viscerally across one subject’s body and linking it forever to another. Mavor reads this unruliness, this weaving, as play between categories and discourses. Can we read the reflection of and within these two photographs as play, too?

In both The Double Star and The Kiss of Peace, the subjects’ gazes are averted from each other, pointed downwards or beyond each other’s bodies and eyes. And yet, these women’s bodies are pressed into and against each other. The younger girl figures in The Double Star are pushed particularly closely together, their lips almost smashed into each other’s, nose fitting into the curve of nose. One child’s hand presses flat against the other’s shoulder. Unlike the older women in The Kiss of Peace, these subjects are mostly unclothed: skin touches skin in an experience that is sticky and visceral, at once tentative and overbearing. The picture is fractured by hairline cracks in its corners, by the thick strand of hair caught into its plate. It weaves itself together with The Kiss of Peace, which, taken several years later, may well be a successor or sequel to the earlier tableau. In The Kiss of Peace, taken out of the context of childhood, touch between women is simultaneously less visible and more intensely felt. Though by the curve of cloth, it is clear Hillier’s hand must reach out to the younger girl’s shoulder in an echo of the models’ position in The Double Star, this act of touch is concealed. Hiller’s lips just barely graze her companion’s forehead, their faces ghosting against each other so gently the sensation demands to be felt. Mavor describes the picture as characterized by “olfaction” (67). The gentleness and urgency of touch as breath and scent make this photograph much quieter, and yet more affectively powerful, than its earlier counterpart.

As an intervention in practices of looking, Tina Campt proposes “listening to images.” Her book, Listening to Images, deals with pictures that are both “quiet” and “quotidian” — mostly state photography, such as state identification and convict photographs — and engages with listening as a practice that allows photographs which were previously understood to be “mute” to speak. She depends on the scientific definition of sound as frequency, arguing that “sound need not be heard to be perceived. Sound can be listened to, and, in equally powerful ways, sound can be felt; it both touches and moves people” (Campt 6). I do not define Cameron’s art photography as quotidian, nor do I place it in the category of photographic work previously understood to be mute. I do, however, believe that it is quiet, operating at a frequency that we must settle ourselves to listen and to feel. “Quiet is not an absence of articulation or utterance,” Campt writes. “Quiet is a modality that surrounds and infuses sound with impact and affect, which creates the possibility for it to register as meaningful” (Campt 5). 

Engaging with work of Cameron’s like The Kiss of Peace or The Angel at the Tomb (another photograph woven together with these others by Hillier’s lovely, unbound mane of hair), a hush seems to settle over the image which is at once erotic and also holy. Here, too, Mavor’s reading of altarity surfaces, which also playfully entangles or weaves together multiple discourses to create something transgressive and new. The quiet of Cameron’s most powerful photographs certainly “infuses [them] with affect [and] impact,” remakes them into something ethereal, powerful beyond their component parts (Campt 5).

Campt writes, “I define the haptic as multiple forms of touch, which, when understood as constitutive of the sonic frequencies of … photos, create alternative modalities for understanding the archival temporalities of images … [Photographs can be] deeply affective objects that implicate and leave impressions upon us through multiple forms of contact: visual contact (seeing), physical contact (touching), psychic contact (feeling), and, most counterintuitively of all, the sonic contact that I have described as a frequency that requires us to listen to as well as view images.” She continues, “haptic temporalities … are composed of moments of contact when photographs touch us and animate reactions and responses” (72). How can we read these “moments of contact” in the context of photographs like Cameron’s, which are so profoundly shaped, from their very formation, with the practice of touch?

From the moment of photographic capture to Cameron’s messy impressions on a photograph’s development, her works are imbued with the suggestion and memory of touch, which reaches out and becomes affective in turn. Mavor writes about pressing her finger in the grooves of a crack on Cameron’s Holy Family, of the tiny fracture lines in The Double Star which “pierce [her] with history and pain” (66-7). Cameron’s photography at once touches, was touched, is touching. Just as she plays with opposition and boundaries, weaving disparate art pieces together through the medium of Hillier’s hair, she plays with touching and temporality as her images point to their own dreamlike constructedness, the work of the artist beyond and before the moment of photographic capture. They quiet us with a holy hush and then touch us with their subtle eroticism — they display the touching process of their development and demand to be touched in return. What they reveal about their own temporality — their haptic temporality, to borrow Campt’s phrase — is fascinating. As much as the photograph exhibits a claim to the real, a snapshot of a precise and specific moment in time, the disturbances to the plate glass in which the images are captured expose the often messy process of development, the points of contact that have shaped the photography’s production, creation, and reception. They illuminate clearly and articulately the way haptic points of contact are formative and transformative, and begin to demonstrate the ways Cameron touched women, and continues to touch (and be touched by) women long after she concluded her work with Mary Hillier and set her camera down. As I suggested earlier, Cameron’s touch is transitive. Reaching out through Mary Hillier’s body to stage a kiss — which she later sent to a friend with her own “kiss” attached — in a sense, she reaches out far past Hillier and to all who interact with her altered, altaring archive.

Works Consulted:

Cameron, Julia. The Kiss of Peace. 1869, International Museum of Photography, at George Eastman House, Rochester. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, by Carol Mavor, Duke University Press, 1995.

–. The Double Star. 1864, Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, by Carol Mavor, Duke University Press, 1995.

Campt, Tina. “Introduction: Listening to Images: An Exercise in Counterintuition.” Listening to Images, Duke University Press, 2017.

–. “Haptic Temporalities: The Quiet Freqency of Touch.” Listening to Images, Duke University Press, 2017.

Mavor, Carol. “To Make Mary: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs of Altered Madonnas.” Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Duke University Press, 1995.


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