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This article is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Pictures from a Library

39: A Moment of Being: Julia Margaret Cameron and Photography
Stella Halkyard
BELIEVING THAT every human subject ‘in its natural state is made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity wrapped in infinitesimal films’, the novelist Honoré Balzac’s approached the newly invented process of photography with great suspicion. Surely a photographic portrait would ‘detach and retain’ one of these layers from its subject so they ‘suffered the loss of one of their ghosts… the very essence ofwhich they are composed’? Balzac saw photography as a system of mortification that has the power to peel the faces, steal the souls and ‘take’ the life of the living. Its products, the photographs themselves, are ‘begot / Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not’.

Considering the portrait shown here of Margaret and Adeline Norman taken by their grandmother, Julia Margaret Cameron in 1874, Balzac’s theory may seem to ring true. The viewer’s eye is drawn to two words in the inscription that skirts the rim of the tondo frame, ‘from life’. On one level to be taken from life is to be dead. Margaret and Adeline, the ostensible subjects of the portrait are the silver chloride copies of Cameron’s only daughter Julia who died from complications during the birth of her sixth child. Taken from life, their image makes present the absence of another child now forever lost. Someone that Cameron was wont to call ‘my first born and best beloved child – the darling of my soul’. It was also this ‘cherished departed daughter’ that gave Cameron her first camera in ...

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