|The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866, albumen print, 36.5 x 28.6 cm|
Julia Margaret Cameron’s aim was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and Beauty.” To attain the status of High Art it was necessary to depict classical and religious subject-matter but if she had achieved only this she would not appeal to a modern sensibility as she does.
The power of her images comes directly from the fact that they are startling traces of those who have lived and stood before her camera; what Roland Barthes refers to as “that-has-been”.
Take The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty as an example. Modelled by Cyllene Margaret Wilson, an orphan adopted by Cameron, the title refers to the Milton poem Allegro. The young girl looks out at the viewer with a direct yet softened stare, her hair tousled and stormy behind her, alternating light and dark. She is in transition, an adolescent moving from darkness into light, from girlhood to womanhood.
Herschel praised the image, calling her, “Absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper to the air.”
Alive she certainly was/is, and as the viewer stares her directly in the face the ambiguity of the image and its allegorical title charges the image with questions: “Who was this girl?” “What kind of life did she live?” “Was she happy?” These are questions that haunt the viewing of many of Cameron’s images and they are so strong only because we are before photographs – emanations of reality.