The Stage DirectorNovember 17, 2022
The camera’s objective – and implicitly masculine – look has
been a topic of discussion for some time, especially when that gaze is directed
at women. So, what happens when the person taking the photo is a woman? I
intend to discuss in this post the women photographers who re-imagined the gaze
from male to female and where we stand currently from the 19th century
and where my role as a practitioner sits in the current climate to that of one
when photography was conceived as an art form.
Having just returned from just under a week in London, it
has taken me a week for what I took in to settle in my head before I felt I could
write anything about what I saw. I had a full itinerary that aimed at gaining a
wide range of art and theatre in the short time I was there. Albeit not all tied
to the discussion at hand but still had a lasting effect on logicising the trip.
The main aim was to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) print and
drawing room the conduct archival research on Julia Margaret Cameron.
I did conduct a series of archival trips to see her work during
my masters and she has always influenced my practice hugely. Mainly because she
went against the status quo of men with the camera trying to perfect the
technical aspects of the workings of a camera theorising that technology makes
you the best photographer. I have always had confidence in my artistic practice,
I feel like therefore I have connected to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron as
she had the same confidence in her work. Yet also the way in which she presented
a girl in front of a lens when photography was becoming an art form is one that
will be paramount to influence the practice of my PhD thesis.
Female practitioners were initially bound by the gendered
social structures of the 19th century, which restricted public spaces for women.
However, despite these limitations, the camera still has a liberating
influence. The purity of these early photographs was remarkably subversive, as
female photographers used the medium to explore gender, sexuality, and social
roles from a visual perspective. Modernity and diversity were being told
through a lens for the first time.
Despite the social structures set for women behind closed
doors they took their cameras and presented us with a photographic practice
that is still respected today in relation to the photographic canon. The
V&A has a page specifically relating to Julia Margaret Cameron opening
with “One of the most important
and innovative photographers of the 19th century”.
The V&A holds over 900 images
of Cameron’s work in which she is best known for her stunning portraiture, she
portrays sitters (friends, family members, servants) as characters in biblical,
historical, or allegorical stories. She was a visionary who believed in the
“divine” power of the medium, courageous in her compositional
experiments, and tenacious in promoting her work. Her photographs broke the
rules: They were intentionally out of focus and often contained scratches, dirt,
and other traces of the process. Her retention of the perfect image mimics not
only the characters but the status quo which I spoke about earlier.
Carol Mavor (1996) discusses Cameron
extensively in her book ‘Pleasures Taken’ she ties the notions of what a
typical role Cameron played in relation to her role as a woman in Victorian England.
She was a mother, and she sent letters every month living up to her societal role
as a woman, yet she adopted and took up photography later in her life aged forty-eight.
Mavor (1996) converses the role in which Cameron takes upon the camera, that
she is not only a performer but a stage director, this model of the role of the
photographer is one that deeply interests me as a practice-based doctoral researcher.
Mavor (1996) later debates Cameron’s use of religious typology and how she
controls a woman’s or girl’s sexuality within ‘a space of holy motherhood’ (p.47).
Images that are often literally blurry metaphorically move between categories,
blurring the lines between sexual and non-sexual, male, and female, earth, and
heaven. They move like ghosts, leaving the viewer at a loss as to what they are
It is important at this point to understand the role which is played when entering the work of Cameron and the traction of entering an archive also. There is almost a privilege to be able to access the images from her archive and study them so effectively in person, there you sit with these girls she has presented to us through her lens, and we actively have conversations with them. The conversations are open yet intensified by the fact it is just you and them, no frame, no formality of an exhibition format. We have seen religious women presented to us through art for centuries, hung on the walls of grand halls. This brings a familiarity that we feel as if we know these characters which she presents in front of her lens.
As I lifted each individual image holding each opposite corner to ensure the print stayed safe in its removal from the archival box. I am placed at the desk to which I have been assigned by the archivist; each girl made a play for my gaze, some struck me as stern, some passive, and some connect my gaze in other ways that are quite hard for me to explain. I interact with the form and the subjects better than I can ever do online or even in an exhibition. The handwritten notes on the back of the images, the handwritten signatures of Cameron and her titled images give them a deeper form than any internet search could give me. The conventionalism within the practice is something that, I aim, in time to connect with the viewer in the same way through my own practice. How does the role I play as the photographer/artist gain a better connection with the viewer? and how can I explore this further within the practice? I feel like the active intention when presenting the characters that Cameron has created will be mimicked within the role of myself behind the lens.
Mavor’s (1996) discussion of Cameron as a stage director really gave me an imperative mechanism to focus on when attending the archive. I have always used performers instead of models in my work because there has always been an interlinking brief to the characterisation that sits up front in my images so it felt relatable to be classed as a director rather than a photographer. Yet, if I was to put myself into this role now (which I intend on doing) how would the images of girls come out? The characters which Cameron presented through her lens we could say were that of ‘popular culture’ of the 19th century. So incidental, am I not reappropriating the exact same approach to my artistic practice as Cameron did? I feel like the answer is yes. She is presenting characters she knew and were in the social construct of her era to recreate in a singular form, frozen in time and for her to be able to be moulded and guided by the viewer. The intention is for me to take the characters which I will create from millennial popular culture, taking the role of the stage director and presenting them via moving images.
Mavor, C. (1996) Pleasures taken. LONDON: TAURIS.
Rexer, R. (2016) The history of photography through Women’s Eyes, Apollo Magazine. Available at: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/the-history-of-photography-through-womens-eyes/ (Accessed: November 17, 2022).
Smith, L. (1998) The Politics of Focus: Women, children, and nineteenth-century photography. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
V&A · Julia Margaret Cameron (no date) Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/julia-margaret-cameron (Accessed: November 17, 2022).