Testing The Limits of Patriarchal Photography

For Peg Harrigan, Instructor in Art at Phillips Academy, the generosity of the William R. Kenan Charitable Trust meant spending the summer on the Isle of Wright and Lacock Abbey in England. There, Harrigan was busy researching the lives and artistic contributions of Julia Margaret Cameron, William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Frederick William Herschel, and her presentation on the experience this past Monday, April 28 at the School Room in Abbot Hall examined the relationship between the three. Cameron was a forward-thinking female photographer, Talbot the inventor of an early form of photography and Herschel an aspiring astronomer who served as a conduit between them. Harrigan hooked the artistically minded diners in Abbot Hall with familiar places and faces. In her presentation, she showed pictures of Lacock Abbey as featured in the first two Harry Potter films, as well as a photo of a statue of Jimi Hendrix on the Isle of Wright. Harrigan continued with photographs of the Talbot Museum where she observed the specimens collected by Talbot, who was also interested in botany, as well as photographs of Cameron’s darkroom and Herschel’s telescopes. Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived primarily in India, also had a house on the Isle of Wright where she took the majority of her photographs. She was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s neighbor and Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt. Cameron picked up photography during the last 11 years of her life, but her impact on the artistic world was significant. Cameron’s explorations in close-cropped photography and famous portraits of figures such as Charles Darwin and Robert Browning showed how a subject’s personality could be captured on film. “It was the traditional photographers who called themselves professionals who said she was messy,” said Harrigan of Cameron’s critics, many of whom were shocked by a woman gaining prominence in what was then a man’s field. William Henry Fox Talbot was fascinated by his quest to find a use for the camera obscura, and while he discovered this after Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, his callotype was the basis of most 19th- and 20th-century photography. “Conceptually, Talbot was probably ahead of his time in a lot of ways,” said Harrigan. The connecting link, Sir John Herschel, grew up in a famous household. His father was best known for his discovery of Uranus and was King George III’s royal astronomer. His aunt, Caroline Herschel, played a prominent role in these discoveries. Sir John Herschel continued his father’s successful telescope-manufacturing business, named several moons of Uranus and Saturn, and developed the photographic concepts of fixer as well as positives and negatives. After the preliminary slides, Harrigan focused on the serendipitous connections between Cameron, Talbot and Herschel. Cameron met Herschel by chance at the Cape of Good Hope, where Herschel gave Cameron her first photography lesson. The two quickly became friends, were eventually the godparents to each other’s children, and both named their children after the other in the course of their 30-year friendship. Talbot met Herschel at a lens maker’s studio in Gemany, where their respective interests of photography and astronomy collided. The circle of friends that included Cameron, Talbot, and Herschel tested the borders of what was commonly accepted. Cameron pushed the envelope as a woman in the male-dominated world of photography and persevered nevertheless; both Herschel and Talbot wrote essays on reforming education to provide greater access to women. Harrigan’s presentation explored the influences that Sir John Herschel had on both artists and photography as a whole. “Certainly, I wanted to highlight… a correspondence, a collaboration between the three characters, with the scientist, Herschel, being the connection.” She continued: “I wondered: What did Herschel get out of the deal? … I found out that he was satisfied with the contribution to society, to a greater pool of knowledge.” Students who attended the presentation came away with a deeper sense of the history of photography and great examples of forward thinking. Lucas MacMahon ’08, a student in one of Harrigan’s photography classes, said, “We looked at some of the images of Cameron and Talbot and Herschel in class. I was intrigued to find out more about how their social partnership yielded some of the greatest photography.” “Julia Margaret Cameron [and William Talbot]’s passion for photography and art… is a good example of a successful person,” said Harrigan. She added: “You might say the same thing about Herschel too.”