Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In review – an intriguing double act

<span>‘Almost postmodern’: Francesca Woodman’s Self Portrait at 13, 1972.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation/DACS</span>
‘Almost postmodern’: Francesca Woodman’s Self Portrait at 13, 1972.Photograph: Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation/DACS

Just over 100 years separates the creative lives of Julia Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman, one a Victorian pioneer of imaginative photographic portraiture, the other a 20th-century American artist who made performative and mysteriously elusive self-portraits. Though neither received the recognition they deserved in their lifetimes, they seem at first glance to be defined more by their differences than their similarities. Now, though, an ambitious exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery brings together the work made by both photographers in their short but incredibly productive working lives.

Cameron (1815-79), who was from a privileged colonial background, came late to the medium, having been given a camera in 1863, aged 48. A self-taught photographer in a still nascent medium dominated by men, she created her body of work in the final 15 years of her life. Woodman (1958-81) was art-school educated, from an artistic family: her father was a painter and photographer, her mother a ceramicist. She became fascinated with photography as a precocious teenager at private boarding school, hand-printing her first realised self-portrait in 1972, aged 13. Her intensely productive creative journey lasted just nine years and ended shockingly when she took her own life, aged 22.

Cameron and Woodman’s respective ways of working were defined to a degree by the technology available to them. Cameron used an unwieldy box camera placed on a tripod and painstakingly created prints from glass plate negatives. Woodman mostly used relatively lightweight medium format cameras and hand-printed her small silver gelatin prints in a darkroom. And yet, as this deftly curated show illustrates, the two shared certain defining preoccupations – not least their embrace of post-production processes as a conduit for their restless imaginations. As curator Magdalene Keaney puts it in her illuminating catalogue essay: “Neither was concerned with producing technically perfect prints, and darkroom manipulation was shared as an integral aspect of creative image-making.”

Cameron’s angelic beings are rooted in Christian iconography and classical mythology. Woodman’s angelic self-projections are altogether more earthly

The subtitle of this exhibition, Portraits to Dream In, alludes to their shared interest in portraiture as a means of imaginative experimentation and transformation. Often viewed as a genre defined by its limitations, Keaney notes that, in their work, it is instead a vehicle to explore “a broad range of ideas related to picture making, appearance, identity, self-representation, the muse, gender, archetypes and storytelling”. We tend to think of these creative preoccupations as essentially modern – certainly more Woodman than Cameron – but they are present, albeit in a less mischievous and provocative way, in the latter’s often idealised allegorical portraits drawing on literature, myth and religious iconography.

The show begins with a pairing of the first portraits that each of the artists declared themselves satisfied with. Cameron’s is a closeup of a young girl in half-profile, created in 1864 and titled, with obvious satisfaction, Annie, my first success. Interestingly, it differs in tone from Cameron’s myriad portraits of cherubic young women, the girl’s sideways gaze and calm expression imparting an unadorned naturalness. Alongside it, Woodman’s 13-year-old self-portrait seems almost postmodern, an indistinct study in grey in which her face is hidden by a mane of hair and her process foregrounded literally and metaphorically by the shutter release cable that extends from her hand to the bottom right foreground of the frame in an expanding blur. As early statements of intent go, they could not be more different, even as each announces the journeys to come.

Keaney has structured the show around loosely thematic headings, some of which are self-explanatory – Picture Making, Nature and Femininity, Models and Muses – and others more indicative of the unlikely pair’s shared interest in ethereal subject matter: The Dream Space, Doubling, Angels and Other Otherworldly Beings. The creative dialogue that follows, across eras, styles, subject matter and approaches, is always fascinating, if sometimes a little tenuous, highlighting the artists’ differences as much as their creative connections.

The section that addresses their shared fascination with the archetype of the angel is a case in point. Cameron’s angelic beings are rooted in Christian iconography and classical mythology, whether an elaborately dressed and beautiful-looking angel in mourning at the tomb of Christ or an almost pre-Raphaelite Venus removing the infant Cupid’s wings. Woodman’s angelic self-projections are altogether more earthly and untamed, her wildly animated body constantly in motion. In one image she levitates with outspread arms beneath makeshift wings, bleached sunlight bleeding from a large window into her spartan studio.

In one wilfully overexposed print, titled On Being an Angel, Woodman frames her arched body from above, her mouth agape and her naked torso bathed in white light. The sense of carnal ecstasy is somewhat undercut by the mundanity of the setting: the camera equipment on the bare floorboards in the background and the dark silhouette of an umbrella leaning against a bare wall. As with all her most haunting images, there is a hint of the surreal here; a sense that she while is powerfully present as a guiding spirit, she is elusive as a subject: a shadow figure, rendered indistinct and unknowable by her constant use of the self-portrait as a form of self-concealment.

Portraits to Dream In is punctuated by surprises: Cameron’s always startling portrait Iago (Study from an Italian) dramatically disrupts the surfeit of images of idealised femininity and childhood innocence with its brooding intensity. One room contains a triptych of large-scale diazotype colour prints that Woodman made towards the end of her life, in which she takes the form of a caryatid – a draped female statue that the ancient Greeks place in their temples. They hover above the space like the ghosts of an unrealised future, emphasising the momentum of Woodman’s creativity and its sudden, terrible termination.

There is a lot to take in here in one viewing, but the intriguing pairing of two disparate female pioneers is a quietly subversive way of exploring their work anew, from a perspective that elevates and contrasts their imaginative strategies rather than their respective life stories. While Julia Margaret Cameron’s guiding presence is palpable in all her portraits – their compositional skill, elaborate tableaux and allegorical resonance – Francesca Woodman is a more complex and shapeshifting author of her own mystery. She once said: “You cannot see me from where I look at myself.” As this creative coupling makes clear, that remains the case.

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