11 January 2015
Visit to London Museum Gallery to see two photographic exhibitions of work by Julia Margaret Cameron and Alec Soth
Cameron’s V&A Exhibition
Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition was hosted at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition was run to mark the bicentenary of her birth in 1815. There were over 100 photographs of hers displayed in the exhibition. Part of the significance of Cameron’s work was that she was an innovative pioneer portrait photographer when photography was still a new and evolving technology and art form. Photography at that time was demanding because of the nature of the photographic wet emulsions, chemicals used and processes required to develop and print.
Cameron’s photographic processes
Cameron used the wet collodion photographic process to create her negatives, (Process is fully described https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collodion_process ) The process was invented around 1850 and refined during the 1850s. The process was demanding, difficult and delicate using fragile large glass plates that are coated with a number of different substances at different stages in their processing. The large glass plate negatives are used to create contact prints, the negative had to be at least as large as the image that is printed. There are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes, breaking the plate glass, smudges, smears and swirls. Fluff, hairs or fibres falling on to the plates or finger marks.
To make the prints from the negatives Cameron used the albumen print method to make her own photographic paper. (Process is fully described https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albumen_print ) Albumen or egg white is used to combine and hold the light sensitive photographic chemicals to bind to the paper. The plate negative would be laid on top of the albumen treated paper so it is in contact with the paper. The paper with the contact negative is exposed to the light and the print appears. The darkening process is stopped by submerging the print in sodium thiosulphate and a stabiliser to stop the print from fading.
Cameron was in her day criticised for some of the faults and flaws that occurred with hand processing \and the fact that some of her portraits were out of focus or evidence that the model slightly moved while being photographed. These imperfections did not concern Cameron, and now often emulated to show the ‘handmade’ one off creativity, a reaction against the modern day machine perfect images captured and produced by modern photographic and printing equipment.
Alec Soth’s Exhibition at the Science Museum
Alec Soth first UK exhibition was shown in the Science Museum, London. The exhibition ‘Gathered Leaves’ is a collection of photographs from four previous books/exhibition – Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and the most recent, Songbook (2014).
South and Cameron similarities
The photographers are from two very different times, Cameron was taking photographs from Victorian 1860s to the 1870s. Soth is a contemporary photographer of the 2000’s his first book ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ was published 2004. There are similarities in some of their works Soth’s portraits of unusual characters have qualities of a story that can be told in the image, the viewer makes their own mind up as to what has just happened or is going to happen, whereas Cameron dressed her models and posed them to emulate a scene from a story or from the bible.
The visit was very interesting to see photography presented in an exhibition, to see the original prints, to see the quality and colours of the images. To compare an early photographer’s work with a very modern photographer’s work. There was so much to see and appreciate I could have done with more time to be able to study more the photographs that I was drawn to, also to have an opportunity to visit the shop and if available purchase cards or the accompanying guides to the exhibitions.
Three Soth images that inspired me
USA. New Orleans, Louisiana. 2000. Adelyn, Ash Wednesday. Sleeping by the Mississippi.
The picture is overwhelmingly an image of a woman deep in reflection and thoughtfulness, presumably after performing an act of worship and witness by painting in ash a cross on her forehead. The mouth is shaped such that you are not sure if she is sad or about to break into a smile. The waves and texture of her hair is accentuated by the streaks of colour. Her back is against railings, is she standing inside or outside of the church?
USA. Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Charles
I love this picture of a character who is clearly obsessed and proud of his hobby of model aeroplanes. Possible a man so involved with his hobby that he has stopped noticing the things around him.
The man does not appear to be too concerned about what other people think of him or his immediate surroundings, the breeze block, pieces of roof felt and clutter He is a man dressed for working in his garage or workshop and dressed for warmth, above all else ready to go outside to fly his planes in his flying suit.
USA. Fountain City, Wisconsin. 2002. Cemetery. Sleeping by the Mississippi
I like this picture for its contrasts, the dark background of the hill and twilight as the night is falling. This contrasts against the brightness of the petrol station that is accentuated by the reflections of the light on the snow covered forecourt.
The contrast of the natural surroundings of the dark forbidding countryside compared to the lonely isolated petrol station. The petrol station looks to be inviting because it is manmade and offers a safe harbour that stands out like a beacon in the on setting cold night.
The lines of the snow tracks left by vehicles lead into the petrol station, drawing the viewer to safety of the illuminated forecourt. It is like a scene out of a thriller movie.
Three Cameron images that inspired me
Julia Jackson, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867, albumen print from wet collodion glass negative. Museum no. PH.361-1981
I like this portrait the way that the portrait melts into the background. The long flowing hair over the models shoulders that is slightly out of focus and looks like running water. The piercing eyes that are looking straight out back at you. The photograph is in warm sepia tones and has imperfections that give it the aged vintage look.
The Neapolitan (1866) Julia Margaret Cameron
The model has a pale ‘willowy’ face. The blanket on her knee is caught in detail, but the shallow depth of field, the models hands, arms and face are slight blurred and out of focus. This gives a soft warmth to the model.
Hosanna, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865, albumen print from wet collodion glass negative. Museum no.PH.245-1982
This is a great picture, the young girl in the foreground looks to be resting and about to go to sleep. There are three faces crowded around looking down on the young girl, as if they are angels watching over the girl. The three faces are not in focus, and the photograph has what appear to be different levels of intensity possibly due to the wet photographic techniques, but they add to the mystery and the feeling that the three faces are hovering angels, not solid people.