If you are a regular reader, you probably know that I like old photography from the 19th century. I am constantly fascinated by being able to step into that time period via these images, more so than reading a passage from literature of the time. There’s something about seeing how the reality of the time is portrayed as well as seeing how our commonality as humans remains over time. It’s like the difference between picking up a worn book printed in that time, the pages frail and stained with waterspots, and looking through a clear window that somehow takes you back to that moment. I think this photo shown here is a great example of this.
This photo is called Sadness and was taken by the British photographer Juliet Margaret Cameron in 1864. Cameron was a Victorian aristocrat who took up photography, in the medium’s relative infancy, at the age of 48. Over a ten year period she took over 3000 large format images of many of the celebrated figures of the time– Lord Tennyson, Carlyle and Darwin, for example– as well as staged recreations of literary and dramatic scenes. She moved to colonial India in 1875 at which point her career in photography effectively ended.
Sadness is an image of the legendary British actress Ellen Terry, who became the most celebrated Shakespearean actress of the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century until her death in 1928, a career that spanned 70 years. You may not have heard of her but her image as Lady MacBeth was immortalized in this 1889 painting by John Singer Sargeant . In Sadness, Terry was but a girl of 17 and was about to be married to a much older man, artist George Frederic Watts. Perhaps the sadness portrayed in this image foreshadowed their short marriage, which lasted less than a year.
History aside, I find the immediacy and presence of the image very appealing. I don’t feel as though I am looking back in time. This could be this very morning. The humanity in it is great and I can easily feel the moment, could feel myself in the very instant that it was set. I think this sense of being set in the now of the viewer is a defining quality of all great visual art, at least in my eyes. And this image from Juliet Margaret Cameron has that.