Thursday 13 August 2015

From Life: Interview with Victoria Olsen

Victoria Olsen
When I moved from looking at Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs to wanting to know more about her life, the first biography I bought was Victoria Olsen's From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.  It remains one of my favourite books on the subject as it is written in an engaging manner with obvious attention to detail and wonderful research.  Recently when I was searching through Amazon for yet more books, I discovered Victoria had written Wordblind: A Tale of Two Readers, a children's novel in Kindle form, and I loved it.  It tells the story of two sisters, May and Annie, living on the Isle of Wight at the end of the nineteenth century.  After the death of their mother, the two sisters have to find their place in society, but Annie is dyslexic or 'word blind'.  I was so impressed by Victoria's work that I had to have a chat with her...
Q. When did you first come across Julia Margaret Cameron and what held your interest?

I first heard of Cameron during a college course I took on Victorian literature in the 1980s. The professor required us each to choose a related topic from a list, research it, and give an oral presentation to the class about it. I chose Cameron and Victorian photography because I’d always been interested in visual arts (I come from a family of artists and photographers, though I have no talent that way myself). I saw her work in Gernsheim’s classic monograph and was hooked….though Gernsheim’s book (published in 1948!) was very old-fashioned and sometimes patronized her. It made me think that there was much more to say about Cameron and her work.

Q. At what point did you decide to write your biography and why?

The Dream (1869)
After college I went to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in English literature but I remained fascinated by the Victorians. I researched a dissertation on 19th century women’s contributions to new definitions of “culture” and I felt it was important to include fields besides writing. Luckily, my dissertation advisor was supportive and I ended up including a chapter on women painters and photographers (Cameron and Clementina Hawarden). When I graduated and went on the job market, though, I was expecting my first child and there were no jobs in my field. I figured I’d spend some time home with the baby and revise the Cameron material into a full-length biography that would update the Gernsheim book…. It took eight years!

Q. One thing that fascinates me about Julia Margaret Cameron is her treatment of her friends, the lengths she went to, the devotion she showed to the men in her life. Do you have a favourite Cameron anecdote?

Sir John Herschel (1867)
There are so many good ones—I think my favourites are the ones where we get a sense of how she treated those Victorian celebrities she photographed. Like when she ruffled her friend and astronomer Sir John Herschel’s hair to get that halo effect. She was quite capable of scolding Tennyson, who was idolized by her peers. She treated those “geniuses” with both reverence and intimacy.

Q. Do you agree with Virginia Woolf’s assessment that she took photographs of ‘Famous Men and Fair Women’, or do you think there is more to her gender assessments than that?

Parting of Lancelot and
Queen Guinevere (1874)
I like Woolf’s assessment because it’s so literary – a perfectly symmetrical alliterative phrase. But it’s not complete and I’m sure Woolf knew it. Much of Cameron’s work fits into neither categorythe narrative works to illustrate Tennyson’s Idylls of the King being just one example—but there were also big exceptions within the portraits. For instance, Cameron was dear friends with Anne Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace and a famous woman author in her own right. Woolf grew up with “Aunt Annie” and knew Cameron’s portrait of her well so she knew that Cameron photographed “famous women” too. And, on the flip side, there’s the story from the end of Cameron’s life in Sri Lanka when she is supposed to have photographed her gardener because she was struck by the beauty of his back…
Q. What do you ascribe her continuing and expanding appeal to?
I think the photographs are still compelling and better understood now after decades of new scholarship, but it may be her life that continues to inspire contemporary audiences. Coming late to her career, feeling divided between work and family, battling “trolls” and “haters”—these are ongoing issues today too, especially for women.
Q. What led you to write Word Blind?
It was a confluence of factors: my interest and expertise with Victorian culture, but also my sympathy for those who didn’t easily find their place in it. Reading was so important to the culture and literacy was spreading – but what if you still couldn’t read? How does a culture – or a family—manage members who don’t fit in? And I grew obsessed with the story of Virginia Woolf’s half sister, Laura Stephen, who had some mental disabilities that led her to be institutionalized and ignored by the rest of the family (including Woolf). I wrote an essay about her here. But there wasn’t enough information to write Laura’s story, so I changed details and some issues and fictionalized it.
Q. What are you working on now?

I’m researching something similar, actually. I discovered that Jane Avril, the Moulin Rouge dancer and model for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters in turn of the century Paris, was once institutionalized in a mental hospital famous for its treatment of “hysterical” women. She wrote a memoir that suggested that she “cured” herself by transforming madness into art. That has been fascinating to me: what did she mean by that? how did her life and work reflect the major shifts occurring in art, psychology and gender relations at the time? I am still trying to figure that out, and my first essay on Jane should come out in the October issue of Open Letters Monthly

I’m also turning WordBlind into an audiobook and From Life into an e-book, so I can share those links with you when they’re out.
Q. Finally, do you have a favourite Cameron photo?
Hard to choose! But I love one of Cameron's own favourite photographs of her favourite niece, Julia Jackson (Virginia Woolf's mother).
It shows off many of Cameron’s great strengths—the dramatic lighting and shadow, the stillness of the pose, the intimacy of her relationship to her subjects. But it shows her careful composition too—all those balanced semi-circles make the photograph into a sort of cameo pendant. And then it’s beautiful in ways that are impossible to name or point to as well.
Many thanks to Victoria for her time and answers. From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography is available here (UK) and here (US) and Wordblind (Kindle book) is available here (UK) or here (US).


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