Frames Blog Federico Serrani

Double dream

17 May 2024

by Jasmina Trifoni


“Annie, my first success.” This is how Julia Margaret Cameron – a lady of the British upper middle class during the Victorian era – titled the portrait of her niece, also the first photograph of her career. Or rather, the first that satisfied her, taken in 1864, when she was 49 years old and already a grandmother, several months after receiving a camera as a gift from her brother-in-law. Given the times, it was an imposing and unreliable wooden affair perched on a tripod. The American Francesca Woodman, on the other hand, didn’t even bother to title her first photograph, taken in 1972, the same day her father gave her a medium-format Yashica for her thirteenth birthday. It’s a self-portrait that can only be described as postmodern, depicting her sitting on a bench, her face hidden by her hair, wrapped in an effective and probably unintended blur.

Both images, with something hypnotic about them, inaugurate the extraordinary exhibition that the National Portrait Gallery in London has dedicated to these two artists born over a century apart and, at least seemingly, very different. Open until June 16th, “Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron – Portraits to Dream In” reveals how much these two artists have in common in their revolutionary, and especially incredibly contemporary, approach to portraiture, their interpretations of gender identity, classical world archetypes, the dream dimension, as well as their unique talent for storytelling.

Francesca Woodman, prima foto a 13 anni

This can be summarized by a note Woodman wrote among her many sharp and feverish notes preparing for her shots (though she rarely bothered to title them): “I feel that photographs can either document and record reality, or they can offer images that show an alternative to everyday life: spaces where the viewer can dream.” Or, by a writing of Cameron: “The eye can detect, and the imagination can understand, all that might or might not happen.”Although, obviously due to age differences, Cameron never met Woodman – and Woodman never explicitly referenced Cameron’s work – both expressed a fascination with (the emerging, in Cameron’s case) Surrealism, particularly with André Breton, who wondered: “Can dreams be used to solve the fundamental problems of the world?” It is also, and moreover, evident that they are united in being women, and by tracing their biographies, one learns that both had short yet prolific careers. The first worked for about 15 years, in her later middle age, at her home on the Isle of Wight and then in Ceylon, where her husband worked in colonial administration. The second was active for just under a decade, in the seventies, from that fateful first pre-adolescent self-portrait until her suicide in Rome, where she lived, at just 22 years old, in 1981.

Francesca Woodman, Angel
Cameron, Angel










Both preferred to shoot indoors, the first setting up scenes in her homes, the second often in neutral or vaguely industrial environments.Both, then, and each with the means at their disposal, loved to experiment in the darkroom (Cameron adapted a chicken coop for this purpose), producing prints the same size as the negatives, but neither was particularly interested in perfecting the technique, rather in using post-production experiments to serve creativity. And both built their imagery from the privileged social and cultural contexts they lived in, Cameron from her association with the intellectual elites of Victorian England, and Woodman from her family background – her father was an artist, her mother a ceramist – and from her adolescence, attending prestigious American schools and spending long periods among the wonders of Italy. As sometimes happens, especially to women, their role in the history of photography was universally recognized only after they were no longer with us.The exhibition unfolds in thematic sections where the images highlight the dialogue between the two artists, transcending time to become dream material. Some might be considered pedantic, like “Doubles” or “Picture Making” (where, for instance, photographs where both artists included similar objects in their scenes, such as umbrellas or flowers, are exhibited), others have slower, more refined threads, like in “Mythology” or “Angels and Otherworldly Beings,” where the photographs clearly inspired by Christian iconography by Julia Cameron are contrasted with those, more earthly despite their evanescence, by Francesca Woodman, deliberately overexposed and created at the Pastificio Cerere in the Roman neighborhood of San Lorenzo, which in the mid-seventies was converted into a space occupied by artists’ studios. Francesca captured herself dancing, almost protected by large white wings that seem to float in that bare environment. If Cameron’s portraits and scenes are staged (a necessary choice due to her photographic equipment) and often explore religious and mythological themes, also inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite painters of her time and Arthurian legends and Gothic-Romantic literature, the most beloved genre of her contemporaries, Woodman’s self-portraits are dynamic, with a skillful and poetically moving use of blur (apparently casual, because in her writings she noted the conceptual and emotional result she wanted from each shot).

Cameron, staged

The two artists are connected by a common ideal of beauty, the affirmation of femininity, and the representation of power roles. And, in the latter case, especially when – rarely for both – they photographed male models, whether it was Cameron’s austere portrait of the English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson or her husband dressed as Merlin. Or, for Woodman, a fellow student in America or a bookseller friend in Rome. These photographs show almost shockingly and universally how men look at women, and how these special women proudly returned that gaze. Both, then, loved hyperbole and had a particular talent for creating what might be called “dream space,” evident in Cameron’s sophisticated allegories as well as in Woodman’s diary-like obsession with portraying herself (often nude but never overtly erotic), her friends, and, above all, materializing her emotions. Julia Margaret and Francesca (because by the end of the exhibition it feels natural to think of them intimately) were probably in search, paraphrasing Virginia Woolf, of “a room of their own.” And in their short, intense careers, they exercised with great awareness that subtle, elegant game of seduction that challenges the viewer to lose themselves in their images, inventing a thousand possible stories. As Francesca Woodman wrote: “You can never see from where I look at myself.

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