The eternity of feminine beauty

Photographers’ work separated by time - and sensibility

Joyce Tenneson softens the features of actress Jodie Foster in a 1996 Polaroid portrait. Joyce Tenneson softens the features of actress Jodie Foster in a 1996 Polaroid portrait. (Courtesy of The Artist)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 24, 2009

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PORTLAND, Maine - More than a century separates the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron from those of Joyce Tenneson. Yet their affinity is plain. Both present feminine beauty as something ethereal and spiritual. Both traffic in allegory and an air of otherworldliness. Both try, in a sense, to visualize the eternal.

There the similarity ends. Cameron’s work is quintessentially Victorian. Indeed, her images not only reflect the sensibility of her era, they helped shape it. Tenneson’s images, which she took between 1986 and 2004, seem as contemporary - and substantial - as clouds. In fact, many of the 27 large-format photographs in “Joyce Tenneson: Polaroid Portraits,’’ which runs at the Portland Museum of Art through Oct. 4, look as though they could have been taken in clouds. They’re that gauzy and pallid. The cumulative effect is of cumulus.

The Victorian sensibility evident in “ ‘For My Best Beloved Sister Mia’: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron,’’ which runs at Portland through Sept. 7, hasn’t vanished, of course. Browse through a selection of Hallmark greeting cards. Visit a Laura Ashley boutique. Picture the inside of Martha Stewart’s imagination. What’s startling about seeing so many of Cameron’s images - nearly 50, with another two dozen in the show by friends and collaborators of hers - is how it lets us see Victorian values afresh.

Allegorical titles like “Cupid,’’ “Devotion,’’ “Divine Love,’’ and “Madonna and Child’’ had not been sicklied o’er with the pale cast of cant when Cameron (1815-79) chose to bestow them. Women with Pre-Raphaelite abundances of hair were meant to be understood as actual women rather than allusions to 19th-century paintings. Cameron’s tableaux may verge on cloying today, but they’re sincerely, naturally cloying.

The title of the show helps explain that sincerity. The emotion was a function of family as well as culture. The images in “ ‘For My Best Beloved Sister Mia’ ’’ come from an album of photographs Cameron gathered for her younger sister. The original album, a mighty-looking arrangement of brown leather, is on display as part of the exhibition.

Its consciously idyllic contents take several forms. Most of the pictures, but not all, Cameron photographed. Several are by her friend Oscar Gustave Rejlander. Others are unattributed. One is by Lewis Carroll. Many of the pictures are allegorical studies of the madonna-and-child sort. Others are portraits of family members. There are eight, for example, of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece. She took seven of them; the other is by Rejlander. In two of the Camerons, Jackson bears a truly startling resemblance to her daughter, Virginia Woolf. There are also photographs of family friends, several of whose names remain recognizable today: the poet Alfred Tennyson, the painters George Frederick Watts and William Holman Hunt. Thus we have a family album of Victorian fame, as well as an album of a Victorian family and Victorian values.

Cameron is a great photographer and, what is not quite the same thing, an essential figure in the history of her medium. Photography was still finding itself; and we can see now how much guidance she provided. A little of her work can go a long way, though. In that respect, she’s like Weegee, of all people. Cameron’s a positive, you might say, to his negative. Once you’ve seen a few Weegees (all that blood and blam-blam-blam), just as once you’ve seen a few Camerons (all that sweetness and light), you definitely get the point.

Cameron’s portraits are so stylized, at least in part, because they had to be. Her camera required long exposure times. Tenneson’s stylization is by choice. Sometimes she’ll shoot her subjects with a soft focus or even out of focus. She wraps some in pale white cloth. Others have sketchy wings as props. The actress Natasha Richardson is one of the wing wearers; her death lends the portrait an inadvertent creepiness.

Richardson is one of several famous sitters. Other journalistic assignments include Salma Hayek, Demi Moore, James Taylor, Andrew Wyeth, Norah Jones, and Jessica Tandy. Tenneson’s cottony style manages to soften Jodie Foster’s features in a 1996 portrait to very happy effect. More often, though, Tenneson’s pictures have the look of marmoreal waxworks: studied and arty, bloodless and inert.

One of the more successful images is “Suzanne in Contortion with Tattoo.’’ The model rests her arms on a small cloth-covered table, and those arms frame her face in a striking fashion. What makes the image unusual among these pictures is that it’s much more about composition than texture. Texture fascinates Tenneson. A master of rendering it, she’s wizardly with wisps. Tenneson’s photographs may seem located in a space beyond time, but that space definitely has an atmosphere.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

‘FOR MY BEST BELOVED SISTER MIA’: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron

JOYCE TENNESON: Polaroid Portraits

At: Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, through Sept. 7 and Oct. 4,

respectively. 207-775-6148,

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