Julia Margaret Cameron and archival creativity: traces of photographic imagination from the Victorian album to neo-Victorian fiction
Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis
The photographs and albums of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) form an originating site of archival creativity, both in their internal dynamics and for a range of textual representations. Conceptually, the archive is increasingly being explored as a creative and affective site for the production of culture and fiction, with Victorian traces featuring prominently due to their richness and profusion. Creative experiments with textual archives have met with critical attention; yet the visual archive is also embedded with fluid patterns of meaning, complicated by the flexible relation between image and text. Victorian photography in particular offers auratic and temporal qualities that can produce implicit narratives. Drawing on a recent wave of Cameron scholarship, I argue that Cameron was an archival artist, creating portraits inspired by history and literature that embed a matrix of cultural strands which demand to be interpreted affectively by the viewer. Her many photographic albums can be “read” as visual archives that present a series of imagined experiences to the viewer, question Victorian politics of identity, and contain fluid narrative potential. These archival narratives can be compared to the way in which Cameron’s photographic imagination has been translated over the last century and a half into textual narratives, in which the photographs act as material tokens of memory, conduits of female emancipation and transformative visual experiences. Her visual structures and arresting style significantly influenced her great-niece, Virginia Woolf, who was also an advocate of archival affectivity as a means to bring attention to “obscure lives”, and whose flexible approach to history adds layers to Cameron’s literary afterlife. In recent years, Cameron’s works have been evoked in neo-Victorian fiction as visual traces that open the text to new interpretations. Representations of Cameron’s photographs deconstruct the dynamics of nineteenth-century visual culture and bring “obscure lives” into the light, conduct structural and temporal experimentations in fiction through sequences of visual experiences, and present the overwhelming power of light as access to the intangible amidst a collage of fragmented materials and meanings. Cameron’s Victorian photographs and albums are radical archival art forms, and demonstrate the exponential archival creativity of the photographic trace to blur accepted borders between reality and fiction, and between the Victorian imagination and the multiple perspectives of the present.
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