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Arresting Beauty: Reviewed by Shannon Taggart

Book Review Arresting Beauty Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron Reviewed by Shannon Taggart "Cultural gatekeepers of the Victorian era initially deemed Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs 'inexcusable.' Critics argued her “slovenly manipulations” were so 'altogether repulsive' that even having been made by a woman couldn’t excuse them..."

Arresting Beauty by Julia Margaret Cameron.
Arresting Beauty
Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron

Thames & Hudson, London, United Kingdom, 2023. 208 pp., 125 illustrations.

Cultural gatekeepers of the Victorian era initially deemed Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs “inexcusable.” Critics argued her “slovenly manipulations” were so “altogether repulsive” that even having been made by a woman couldn’t excuse them. Such contempt did little to shake Cameron’s confidence in her work or make her doubt her insights into the medium that were far ahead of their time. Arresting Beauty is a petite yet comprehensive book celebrating what made Cameron one of history’s most provocative photographers. 

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) started photographing in 1863 at age 48, having been given a camera as a gift by her daughter. Most in this new role of 'photographer' valued the camera as an objective tool and used it to collect facts about the world, but Cameron immediately intuited photography’s dual nature as an art form. Among the first to probe its power to transform and provoke feeling, she began by questioning the camera’s most basic function. Despite having the technical prowess to create sharp images, Cameron halted her focus based on what looked most beautiful, asking: “What is focus, and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?” Her use of softness and close-ups is now considered groundbreaking. Cameron’s approach to the print was controversial as well. She was early to realize that darkroom interpretation was part of what made photographers artists. She remained indifferent to cracks or marks, possibly even welcoming them, and refused to discard damaged works. Her radical acceptance of the process anticipated future deconstructions of the photographic theater.

Cameron’s concepts were also unconventional. Assuming from the start what would take over a century to be generally accepted, she ignored the argument that photography is inferior to drawing or painting because it is a mechanical and chemical process. Cameron understood that all art is intention, the image is a thing in itself, and the human spirit can be expressed by hand or by eye. Beyond her pioneering portraits, Cameron’s other pictures were unapologetic attempts to turn life into myth. She staged scenes from the Bible, classical mythology, Renaissance painting, English literature, and famously helped her friend Alfred, Lord Tennyson breathe new life into Arthurian legend by illustrating his poetry. Cameron believed that photography could transcend reality, and she repeatedly used the same models, props, and drapery to make her point. The art establishment considered these tableaux to be in poor taste, and it took until the 1980s for them to be positively reassessed.

One of Julia Margaret Cameron's primary aims was to immortalize. She saw that, by holding images of people in time, photography offered an afterlife — a divine art that aligned with her religious faith. Cameron’s methods cut to the heart of photography’s strange magic, prefiguring Pictorialist aesthetics, Surrealist photography as imaginal tool, and snapshot artists such as Nan Goldin, who sacrifice technical perfection for intimacy. Arresting Beauty is an accessible volume drawn from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s holdings, the most extensive collection of her photographs in the world. It introduces new viewers, or invites those already familiar, to appreciate Cameron’s intent to “electrify you with delight and startle the world.”

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Shannon Taggart is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited and featured internationally and has been recognized by Nikon, Magnum Photos and the Inge Morath Foundation, American Photography, and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. Her first monograph, SÉANCE, was published by Fulgur Press in November 2019 and was named one of TIME’s best photobooks of the year.