Two Pioneering Photographers’ Versions of Femininity

Francesca Woodman, “Untitled” (c. 1977–78) (all photos Natalie Haddad/Hyperallergic)

LONDON — Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In at the National Portrait Gallery is all about affinities. The show’s premise is that two innovative women photographers whose lives were separated by a century are connected by remarkable parallels. The massive exhibition of more than 160 works is divided into sections (e.g., The Dream Space, Angels and Otherworldly Beings, Mythology, Nature and Femininity), and some surface similarities are obvious: Both artists were women, had brief careers, worked primarily in black and white, pushed the limits of their medium, and had a feel for fantasy. Alongside these, curator Magdalene Keaney posits thematic correspondences, attuned to the artists’ apparent femininity, and provides visual evidence of the tenuous connections by pairing formally similar images. Angels, nymphs, goddesses, and women with loose dresses and downcast eyes circulate as the ethereal threads that bind the artists across time and place.

Just seeing this many works by these artists is a gift for fans, and Keaney deserves credit for bringing a major two-woman show into a national museum. Yet what stood out for me was not where these two artists overlapped, but where they diverged.

The show begins with the photograph that each artist considered her first successful image. Both works contain many of the qualities that came to define their aesthetics. In Cameron’s “Annie, My First Success” (1864), contrasting dark and light areas divide the picture plane into clear zones that frame the nine-year-old subject’s three-quarter profile, gently encircling Annie’s face and hair to establish her as the focus and suggest an interior life. Woodman’s “Self-portrait at Thirteen” (c. 1972) obscures any sense of interior life by covering her face with her hair. Diffuse light from an unseen source absorbs her body into a mosaic of grays, her legs dissolving into the haze that overtakes the lower part of the image. In these pieces, Cameron uses composition and light effects to create a narrative work that centers and romanticizes the sitter, while Woodman employs the human body as a formal element in explorations of light and composition. 

The one commonality on which many critics and the curator seem to agree is the show’s overriding femininity and female gaze. Defaulting to a general understanding of these notions in relation to White, Western women of socioeconomic privilege, albeit separated by time and place, is rife with problems. Setting these issues aside, though, the pairing is most enlightening in the way it illuminates how gender and sexuality play out through the artists’ drastically different versions of femininity. 

The only female gaze in Woodman’s work is her own. And even at its most otherworldly, it betrays her artistic rigor and fascination with her craft, as well as the influence of her mostly male Surrealist forebears. Her authorial dominance is only subdued in photographs of men, who are granted a level of subjectivity and visibility denied to the women she photographed. In one work from the series Portrait of Paolo Missigoi, Owner of the Libreria Malador, Roma (c. 1977–78), in the Men section of the exhibition, she bathes the subject’s bare torso in light, articulating the lines of his slim body. His pose and idealized figure evoke fashion photography, but Woodman’s approach enters Cameron’s territory, swapping the latter’s soft-focus women for a chiseled man.

Woodman’s most “portraity” portraits are of her boyfriend, Benjamin Moore, in the section Models and Muses. A 1976 photo is a stark close-up of the subject’s face, his gaze nearly piercing the camera, while an untitled work from c. 1977–78 and “These People Live in That Door” (c. 1976–77) pair Benjamin and Francesca. In the former, the two sit together in the tight space of the frame, Benjamin’s masculinity emphasized by his white undershirt, slicked back hair, and shadows engulfing the right side of his face; Francesca is defined by her smaller stature, softer gaze, and the wispy upsweep of her hair. In the latter, Benjamin, in a black leather jacket, leans in toward the camera and Francesca, in a girlish dress, shrinks back against the wall in a passive stance, exaggerating their size and height differences. Here, Woodman creates an image of traditional heteronormative domesticity, in which the man presides over the woman.

Woodman’s works are joined in this section by Cameron’s images of Julia Jackson, her niece and one of her most frequent subjects. Across multiple photographs, Cameron counters the bluntness of Woodman’s male-female dynamic with attentive affection for Jackson, of whom she wrote “she walks in beauty” (quoted in the exhibition catalog). In “My Favourite Picture of all My Works (Julia Jackson)” (1867), the light on Jackson’s face sculpts her features, nearly transforming her into a marble statue, while her expression suggests melancholy, invoking both timelessness and mortality. Similarly, with “The Angel at the Sepulchre” (1869–70), soft light on sitter Mary Hillier’s face uplifts her distant gaze. The dark background casts her luminous skin into relief, while white lilies — the only other bright area in the image — reflect their grace and ephemerality onto the sitter. It’s both allegorical and real, raising Hillier to the level of the spiritual. In contrast to Woodman’s images of men, as well as many faceless women, including herself, Cameron’s devotion to the fine details of faces and expressions and to her ideals of beauty articulate a distinctly queer visual realm, marked by closeness among women. 

To be clear, I’m referring to the artworks, not making claims about the artists’ personalities or proclivities. But associating Woodman’s work with femininity should include acknowledging the complicated gender dynamics that emerge in her portraits of men, as well as the force of her authorial voice in images of women. In the latter, the democracy of body and object is a product of an artistic vision that is anything but passive. Likewise, if Cameron’s photography is to be appraised for its technical and conceptual modernity, and perhaps for its feminism, maybe there’s another perspective, one that rejects a universal “femininity” whose diluted political stakes are shaped by White, male ideals. Maybe instead museum-goers can consider the gesture of inserting a queer, Sapphic gaze into an unsuspecting and patriarchal art world. And we can recognize Cameron as radical not just in her time, but in our time, too.

Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In continues at the National Portrait Gallery (St. Martin’s Place, London, England) through June 16. The exhibition was curated by Magdalene Keaney.   

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