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By Matthew Nash

There is, perhaps, no better known photo album than the one Julia Margaret Cameron created for her sister Mia in the 1860s. Her images are haunting and fascinating, a glimpse into a world that is forever gone and that few were able to capture. Through her explorations in the then new media of photography, we find a connection to a time that seems distant and foreign, while also feeling the tenderness of family and friends that is timeless.

For the exhibition "For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron" the Portland Museum of Art presents the entire album, framed and presented with descriptions of each person, as well as the original binding and handwritten end sheets. While the intimacy of the book format is lost in this form, the depth and complexity of the show reveals how intricate Cameron's thoughts and experiences were, and how aggressively she was working to create art with the new technology of photography.

Julia Margaret Cameron was a wife and mother who began making photographs in her middle age, after her husband moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for business. Her daughter gave her a camera to fill her time, and she began photographing her friends and family. By themselves, these images would be a fascinating glimpse into the upper classes of Victorian England, and the fact that Cameron's friends included some of the greatest scientific and artistic minds of the era lends the album a powerful sense of history. Beautiful, loving images of Alfred "Lord" Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Sir Henry Taylor, and many others are included alongside photos of her family. Tennyson appears in a number of photos, his ragged beard a soft blur from the long exposures.

A number of the images are oddly constructed, overly dramatized in a way that seems intended to capture "real life" with a tool not yet suited to the task. Her images titled Cupid and Allegorical Study, for example, show a theatricality and constructed composition drawn from a popular painting style. Many of her portraits are oddly cropped or show the ragged edges of her backdrops, the occasional tree branch intruding. Some photos, such as My Ewen’s Bride of the 18th of November 1869 fit our contemporary expectations of "family photography," but many others show that Cameron was looking to create a far more artistic vision than simply a record of those around her.

Cameron was not alone in her experiments with photography, and the "Mia" album offers deep insight into her ideas and influences. Along with her own images, Cameron included a number of prints by her friends and contemporaries, photos she was inspired by or aspired to make. Among these is an utterly fantastic photo by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, titled Lionel, Emily, Alfred and Hallam Tennyson, which shows the Tennyson family walking the grounds of their estate. They appear to be walking carelessly, caught mid-stroll by the camera and unconcerned with the photographer. It is not the stiff portraiture of the era, which drew largely on painting tradition, but something closer to a snapshot. It is easy to see how Cameron was influenced by this image. Many of her later photos of her children, and even her more formal portraits, carry a looseness that is both unexpected and endearing. It is the most moving aspect of her work, the sense of being in the room with a person, feeling the rough fabric of their shirt, the joy of shared creative aspirations.

Even those familiar with her images will be amazed by many of the photographs in this exhibition, some of which are rarely shown and not nearly as famous as her portraits. Equally important are the inclusion of images by the photographers who were inspiring Cameron, and which she included in her album. "For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron" is far more than an exhibition of Cameron's photographs, it is an in-depth look into the life of a small community of creative minds, each pushing the boundaries of the nascent photographic medium.

The Portland Museum of Art

"For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron" is on view July 4 - September 7, 2009 at The Portland Museum of Art.
This exhibition is a companion to "Joyce Tenneson: Polaroid Portraits" which is on view July 11 - October 4, 2009.

All images are from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, and used with the permission of The Portland Museum of Art.

About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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