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  • “Simply Pictures of Peasants”: Artistry, Authorship, and Ideology in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photography in Sri Lanka, 1875–1879
  • Joanne Lukitsh (bio)

In this essay I will examine a particular ideological construction of identity and visibility in photographs of colonized subjects made by the Victorian High Art photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. 1 At issue in this construction is the relation of photographer to photographed subject, and the arrogation of authority to the photographer’s position. The authority of the photographer over the photographed subject would seem easily mapped onto the unequal relation of colonizer to colonized. Instead, in this essay’s account of a photographer, her images, and their histories, colonialist discourses unsettle the authority of the colonialist photographer over her colonized photographic subjects.

Signs of trouble for the authority of a colonialist photographer are registered in problems of Cameron’s authorship of her images of Sri Lankan models. In art historical discourse produced since the late 19th century, Julia Margaret Cameron is a canonical figure for her “out of focus” portraits, tableaux vivants, and figure studies based upon High Art prototypes. In the first part of this essay I will discuss a recurring gesture in art historical narratives of Cameron’s photography: the qualification or elision of Cameron’s authorship of her photographs of Sri Lankan models—despite evidence of authorship otherwise considered acceptable. This narrative gesture maintains the Sri Lankan models as other and reserves Cameron’s artistry for the English models for her photographs.

An example of this narrative gesture is the concluding section of an important 1975 monograph on Cameron by the photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim:

The comparatively few photographs which Mrs. Cameron took after settling in Ceylon are quite unimportant. These pictures of natives, singly or grouped in front of a tree or against a wall, could equally well be the work of some other amateur.

The only known landscape known to have been taken by Mrs. Cameron, a waterfall at Dimbula, dates from this period. 2

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Figure 1.

Kalutara peasants/”Ceylonese peasant group, Kalutara”. Collection of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Bath, England.

Gernsheim illustrates his text with a reproduction of a Cameron photograph, [End Page 283] “Ceylonese peasant group, Kalutara,” from a British collection (fig. 1). 3 While Gernsheim’s qualification of Cameron’s authorship of the image (“these pictures of natives . . . could equally well be the work of some other amateur”) is belied by his illustration of the image in his Cameron monograph, he also assigns a non-artistic photographer to the image. Gernsheim evaluates the photographs as artistic failures (“quite unimportant”) and as amateur work (“pictures of natives”). His evaluations cancel each other out (i.e., if the photographs [End Page 284] are amateur work, their unimportance is of no matter), except to deprecate the Sri Lankan models. 4

In qualifying Cameron’s artistic authorship, Gernsheim produces a non-artistic photographer for the images of Sri Lankan models and gives the putative transparency of photographic realism a paradoxical twist: the Sri Lankan models in Cameron’s photographs make their own subordination self-evident as natives who group, rather than pose, for the camera. Yet, would Cameron’s artistic authorship invalidate Gernsheim’s colonialist understanding of the Sri Lankan models? The narrative gesture producing Cameron’s non-authorship of her Sri Lankan photographs masks how artistic and non-artistic authorship work together in an ideological relation.

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Figure 2.

“Cingalese Girl”. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

In the second part of this essay I will use Homi Bhabha’s theorizations of colonialism to examine a case of colonial mimicry in a Cameron photograph, “Cingalese Girl” (fig. 2). In this image Cameron discloses ambivalence about using signs of white femininity to represent a dark-skinned colonized woman. As a case of colonial mimicry, Cameron’s “Cingalese Girl” betrays photographic authorship as a changeable term in an ideological construction of identity and visibility in photographic images. The changeability of photographic authorship is not an unstable operation of authorship, riven from within. Instead, this approach to photographic authorship unsettles a simple ordering of the viewing...

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pp. 283-308
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Ceased Publication
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