Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: forced focus and fuzzy parallels

    The pairing of Francesca Woodman with Julia Margaret Cameron that has arrived at the National Portrait Gallery is insisting on an equivalence between the two artists. The show is predicated on the belief that they share important artistic concerns. Unfortunately, they don’t. Not really.

    True, there are some superficial similarities. Both take black-and-white photographs using old-fashioned methods. Both are dreamy. Both have recurring trouble getting their work in focus. But the connections end there. In the real world, the world of evidence and facts, scholarship and truth, nothing unites Woodman and Cameron except the whims of the contemporary curator. Which makes for frustrating viewing.

    What’s also irritating is that both artists, on their own, have something tangible to offer. Cameron (1815-79) was one of the most important contributors to the early days of photography. Coming late to her art — she was 49 when her daughter gave her a camera as a gift — she brought experience, confidence and an enviable address book to the task.

    Her portraits of eminent Victorians still adorn our school textbooks. Her softly focused visions of angelic children and dreamy Guineveres introduced a new set of feminine values into photography. She was an inventor, a shapeshifter, a pioneer.

    Woodman (1958-81) was none of those things. Born in Denver, Colorado, to parents who were artists, she was nervy, narcissistic and neurotic, and what little time she gave herself in her short career was spent acting out floaty photographic situations that usually involved taking off her clothes.

    The first work of hers we see here, taken at the age of 13, shows her hiding her face behind a shower curtain of hair while the camera darts in and out of the shadows, hoping for a focus. It’s a fleeting admission of insecurity, mind games and acne. Later she went to art school and had a boyfriend. And that’s about it. At the age of 22 she killed herself.

    In such a tragic Barbie life, there simply wasn’t time to achieve anything solid. Just hints, flicks and whispers. Yet it was exactly this lack of substance that struck a chord in her trembly, white American audience when her career was rediscovered. The fragility of her output felt immediately familiar: a self-harmer was communing with other self-harmers. She quickly became mega-fashionable and much exhibited.

    This show doesn’t tell that story. Its ambitions are knottier. Instead, it progresses through a series of creaky parallels in which the curators attempt to match her vision with Cameron’s. All theme shows have their work cut out adding up to a hill of beans. This one is especially doomed.

    Where Woodman’s first artwork is the shaky teenage self-portrait where she hides behind her hair, Cameron’s, taken when she was 50, is a portrait of a friend’s daughter, Annie Philpot, who fills the frame with juvenile sweetness, topped with the hints of tragedy that are Cameron’s calling card.

    Taken with a large fixed-plate camera that produced thrillingly detailed negatives, Annie’s thoughtful head takes up the whole image. Even though it’s a touch on the shaky side — a problem Cameron rarely solved — the face has such depth and resonance. From the off, it’s a vision that’s bold and close.

    Woodman’s art, fighting for attention alongside, is slight and ethereal. By the time she got to art school, in 1975, colour photography had long been available but she stuck with black-and-white, working with a nostalgic silver gelatin process that dates back to Cameron’s era. Where Cameron’s images are large, Woodman’s are tiny and you have to lean in close to see what’s happening. Even then it’s impossible to be certain.

    In another dodgy parallel, a Cameron image featuring an umbrella is compared with a Woodman image also featuring an umbrella. In Cameron’s example it’s being held by two little girls in robes who act out a playful orientalist tableau. Phoney but sweet.

    Woodman, however, uses her parasol to talk about herself, crouching awkwardly behind it in a messy teenage bedroom, as if she’s playing psychological hide and seek with us. Bold v furtive, elegant v messy, outward-looking v inward-looking, the show never progresses because it’s stuck like a scratched record on repetitive comparisons.

    Where Woodman does differ from Cameron is in her fondness for nudity: her own. Taken mostly in Rome, where she spent her family holidays, the nude self-portraits rhyme fragments of her body with the faded and ruined rooms in which she finds herself. It’s as if she wants to be a real-life Roman nymph, flitting about the shadows of a mythical path.

    In the show’s highlight, she produces a set of life-size images in which she acts out the role of a female caryatid, bearing the weight of the pediment above. By injecting herself into the past, she illuminates the present, and comments on the role of the feminine in art. Suddenly, there’s some solidity in her vision. But it’s a false dawn.

    As the show progresses, the thematic parallels grow less and less convincing, until the journey degenerates into a game of Snap. The final section is devoted to “Men”. Cameron photographed some. So did Woodman. Cameron’s have notable faces and are boldly portrayed. Woodman’s are Joe Averages: skinny little torsos with skinny little presences.

    It’s a comparison so weak that it might be said to achieve the perfect ending. If ever there were a false equivalence, it is the equivalence between these two.

    Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until Jun 16