One Fine Show: The Photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron at Milwaukee Art Museum

“Arresting Beauty" brings together more than ninety works spanning photos, paintings and archival objects related to Cameron’s career.

A sepia photo of a woman looking dramatically off to the left
Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die!, 1867; Carbon print. © The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund. Museum no. RPS.735-2017

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

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Photographic portraiture is a curious practice, just as much about the photographer as the sitter. How is it that photographs of other people are able to say so much about the person taking the photograph? How can Richard Avedon and Peter Hujar each photograph Andy Warhol so differently? To me, these mysteries were made most apparent when Annie Leibowitz started doing Star Wars characters, which were weirder than you might have even expected because her eye lent the alien-ridden cantinas a feeling of glamor that felt incompatible with hives of scum and villainy.

A new show at the Milwaukee Art Museum pays tribute to one of the earliest names in portrait photography. “Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron,” brings together more than ninety works including photographs, paintings and archival objects related to Cameron’s career. Most of these come to the Midwest from the V&A in London, where Cameron had a studio back when it was called the South Kensington Museum.

Cameron received her first camera as a present from her daughter at 48 and seemed to understand everything about the new technology instinctively, despite edging into the period of life in which people often start to need help setting up their iPads. On a scientific level, her prints display perfect use of light, dark and planes. Then, emotionally, she manages to crack open her Victorian subjects, so that we get to know their private realms in an age where opening those was the greatest taboo.

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Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! (1867) takes its title from “Lancelot and Elaine” from Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and the sitter’s face has a particularly Victorian attitude to the melodrama implied by that title. The woman’s gaze is not quite distant, but the curious look on her face borders on a sneer, as if the woman is resentful of being so in love.

These are the kinds of images that you could spend the rest of your life trying to understand. Cameron sent one of the photos in this show, The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty (1866), to the scientist Sir John Herschel, who then wrote, “She is absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper into the air.” It’s hard to say what makes this sitter so lifelike. It may be her freckles or the flavor of her angst.

Children are not as complicated with Cameron. In I Wait (1872), an angel child does just that and in The Whisper of the Muse (1865), they are but props for the old man with the violin in his hands, craving inspiration. Modern photography can feel superficial on every level. Cameron managed to pioneer a style that has yet to be emulated, despite having been born well before the invention of photography.

Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron” is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through August 18.

One Fine Show: The Photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron at Milwaukee Art Museum