Woodman and Cameron: Portraits to Dream In – groundbreaking female photographers a century apart

<span>An untitled image by Francesca Woodman from 1976</span><span>Photograph: tbc</span>
An untitled image by Francesca Woodman from 1976Photograph: tbc

Legend has it that Julia Margaret Cameron’s last word, as she lay on her deathbed on a tea estate in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1879, was “beauty”. Her version of beauty was somewhat classical and in keeping with the pre-Raphaelite ideals of her era: pious, pure and white – long, wavy hair, flower crowns and diaphanous dresses. She became an expert at preserving this vision, using the sliding box camera she received as a gift aged 49 to master both the wet collodion process, where a piece of glass is coated with collodian and exposed, and albumen printing – coating paper with egg white to give a sharper, glossier effect.

A vast collection of Cameron’s vintage prints are shown alongside pieces by the enigmatic American artist Francesca Woodman in the National Portrait Gallery’s Portraits to Dream In. Woodman, working from the 1970s, shared a similar predilection for a certain kind of beauty, more sexy, though still demure – both she and Cameron inherited, perhaps, a way of seeing the world from their artistic, cultured families and privileged upbringings. In her self-portraits, made when Woodman was still a teenager (her earliest work, included here, was taken at the tender age of 13) show a body still working itself out, within space. Time reveals itself in the details – the same pair of black Mary Jane shoes recurs in several pictures; Woodman, like Cameron, produced her body of work in less than 15 years. Neither was very well respected while they were alive – but their legacy has long outlived them and both have been phenomenally influential.

Though Woodman worked a century after Cameron and on another continent, the parallels between the two are astonishing. They share, for first instance, visual quirks – the exhibition pairs photographs by each that use umbrellas as props. They also shared a love of role-play and power dynamics: in a theatrical portrait by Cameron, she recreates a scene from her friend Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, casting a friend and her husband as Merlin and Vivien at the moment the magician submits to the villain of Camelot – a searing satire of male weakness and vanity in the face of feminine youth and beauty.

Next to this image is a playful series of images by Woodman, taken with Charles Moccio, a life model at Rhode Island School of Design where Woodman was a student in the late 70s. Woodman comes in and out of the frame, clothed and nude; Moccio laughs and takes on various submissive poses – until finally he appears collapsed in a corner, clutching a sheet of glass that presses against his portly flesh. Here the edges of their play darken suddenly. A caption scrawled in pencil by Woodman: “Sometimes things seem very dark. Charlie had a heart attack. I hope things get better for him.” It reads as a warning as much as a sombre reflection.

Both Cameron and Woodman are drawn to drama – especially the hyperbole of classical, mythological and biblical representations of femininity. An entire section of the exhibition brings together works from Woodman’s Angels series, photographed in Rome in 1977, where the artist leaps into the air in front of a pair of billowing white sheets strung up in the window of an industrial warehouse, to give the effect of a seraph urbanite, alongside Cameron’s sweet-cheeked cherubim – beatific portraits of sometimes truculent Victorian children taken in the 1870s.

Cameron was proud of her technical triumphs – she declared in her titles when she had a success or a favourite work. Among the impressive and more experimental works of Woodman’s in the exhibition are a collection of her Caryatid pieces – huge diazotype prints in which she casts herself and female friends as carved female figures found in ancient Greek temples. Purplish and engulfing the space, they create an ambience of big female energy that contrasts with Woodman’s usual, tiny square gelatin prints.

A further thematic section considers the working conditions of both artists: Cameron moved from a portrait studio at the V&A, to make most of her work in a cleared-out chicken coop in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. (If you’re wondering about the fate of the animals, Cameron wrote: “The hens were liberated, I hope and believe not eaten.”) Woodman is known for the ominous, industrial interiors she made for many of her self-portraits – stripped wood floors and vast windows, you can’t look at them now and not think of her suicide in 1981, aged 22. Both also photographed outdoors, seeking a connection to nature. Two photographs of Woodman’s taken in Antella, Tuscany in 1978, are thrilling – the ruins of a building punch holes in the sky; in another her body is overwhelmed by a tangled mass that appears to come down from above. They are reminiscent of Graciela Iturbide’s supernatural shots of Mexico of the same time. These are glimpses of the artist Woodman might have become.

It is also a relief from the onslaught of beauty, that after a time becomes insistent and obsessive in this exhibition. The prints themselves are staggering, but each artist’s pursuit and rehashing of what now seem tired ideas of ideal feminine beauty becomes tiring. Neither artist reflected the world or their time – these portraits are personal effigies, fuzzy facisimiles of feminine beauty as they saw and experienced it.

Smoky, hazy picture after picture of chimerical women, the show begins to leave you in the light-headed reverie it promises. Then it ends in a room bluntly called Men – some of Cameron’s most celebrated portraits, and some of Woodman’s least known. This room is surprisingly welcome, a chance to scrutinise and subject these male figures – friends, lovers and acquaintances of the artists – to the public gaze.

Here both seem to break away from the tropes and traditions of portraiture, too; Cameron and Woodman establish their own language for looking here. The portraits of men, conversely, suggest we are all held back by the way we look at women and what we look for in them.

As the title invites – these are portraits we are supposed to dream in; to get lost and then maybe find ourselves in. But like nocturnal apparitions, the images faded fast from my mind when I left the gallery. I was left with a slight irritation of being woken up and having a woozy feeling of being wrongfooted.