Idylls of the Queen

Miss Keene stares at me, following my steps around the room while she remains fixed on the wall in black and white. As Cassiopeia, her gaze pierces through a constellation of cracks and specks that cloud her immortal skin. She has Poseidon to blame, not me. I did not put her in chains for the so-called vices of arrogance and vanity. Sweet liberty stands beside her, hair loose, eyes locked without her twin’s accusatory defiance. I keep moving and seek out Sir John Herschel, who now looks through me, weighed down by thoughts of the stars. The chiseled grooves of age, marks of earnest concentration, let wisps of feathery hair dematerialize into sepia. He is no prophet or scientist but flesh and blood, caught in a moment of uncertainty.

A Lovely Sketch and English Blossoms by Julia Margaret Cameron
Handmade items to buy: (clockwise) Necklace by JosKii; Dress by Mariko Ishikawa; Necklace by Hypho; Earrings by Sylwia Calus; Earrings by Cuorerosso; Earring by Anna Lawska; Bracelet by Siam by Rim; Necklace by Harmony Winters

One-hundred-and-forty-six years before I walked into a small, grey room in the Metropolitan to visit Miss Keene and Sir Herschel, Julia Margaret Cameron made them wait in front of her lens, fixed at a focal length of roughly twelve inches. The final prints capture her subjects as well as traces of the photographic process. Taking the wet collodion glass plate negatives into the darkroom and bathing them in chemical fluids invited mistakes. Scratches, fingerprints, specs of dust – Cameron kept them all. This is a photograph, she says. Not a realist painting, not an unmediated window into reality.

The Madonna Penserosa and Mary Ryan by Julia Margaret Cameron
Handmade items to buy: (clockwise) Chess Piece by Manos; Bowl by Susan Dwyer; Clutch by Rinarts; Earrings by Silvia Marzucchi; Scarf by Land of Bohemia; Earrings by Lolide; Throw by Tunisian Handwoven; Jewelry Set by Grey Heart of Stone

With flaws, forms that waver in and out of focus, and subjects that live in a vague, allegorical past, Cameron’s photographs seem to deny reality. But come face-to-face with one of her prints, not reproductions, and you will see that it is precisely these traces that makes flesh come alive. Don’t we see the everyday through a layer of interruptions, focusing on the essential and blurring out the rest? And don’t we tend to mythologize our own lives, trying to bend reality to a story with softer edges? Cameron reflects how we see in the alchemical traces of photography and the universal language of allegory.

In a letter to Sir John Herschel (yes, they were friends), she asks: “What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?” I’m glad she failed, over and over. She allows us to stand in the open doorway between visceral reality and fantasy, to see the crack alongside the cherub. Go ahead, look Miss Keene in the eye and tell me you don’t feel her bitterness. Then, go make some mistakes.