From a critical discussion of the work of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
What Cameron called her “fancy-subject” pictures—photographs in which two or more costumed sitters enacted, under Cameron’s direction, scenes from the Bible, mythology, Shakespeare, or Tennyson— bear unmistakable traces of the often comical conditions under which they were taken. In many respects they have more connection to the family album pictures of recalcitrant relatives who have been herded together for the obligatory group picture than they do to the masterpieces of Western painting. In Raphael and Giotto there are no infant Christs whose faces are blurred because they moved, or who are looking at the viewer with frank hatred. These traces, of course, are what give the photographs their life and charm. If Cameron had succeeded in her project of making seamless works of illustrative art, her work would be among the curiosities of Victorian photography—like Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s extravagantly awful The Two Ways of Life—rather than among its most vital images.
It is precisely the camera’s realism—its stubborn obsession with the surface of things—that has given Cameron’s theatricality and artificiality its atmosphere of truth. It is the truth of the sitting, rather than the fiction which all the dressing up was in aid of, that wafts out of these wonderful and strange, not-quite-in-focus photographs. They are what they are: pictures of housemaids and nieces and husbands and village children who are dressed up as Mary Madonnas and infant Jesuses and John the Baptists and Lancelots and Guineveres and trying desperately hard to sit still. The way each sitter endures his or her ordeal is the collective action of the photograph, its “plot” so to speak. When we look at a narrative painting we can suspend our disbelief; when we look at a narrative photograph we cannot. We are always aware of the photograph’s doubleness—of each figure’s imaginary and real personas. Theater can transcend its doubleness, can make us believe (for at least some of the time) that we are seeing only Lear or Medea. Still photographs of theatrical scenes can never escape being pictures of actors.
What gives Cameron’s pictures of actors their special quality—their status as treasures of photography of an unfathomably peculiar sort—is their singular combination of amateurism and artistry. In The Passing of Arthur, for example, the mast and oar of the makeshift boat representing a royal barge are obviously broomsticks and the water is white muslin drapery. But these details are insignificant. For once, the homely truth of the sitting gives right of place to the romantic fantasy of its director. The picture, a night scene, is magical and mysterious. While Cameron’s fancy-subject pictures have been compared to poor amateur theatricals, The Passing of Arthur puts one in mind of good amateur theatricals one has seen, and recalls with shameless delight.
When you are taking the test, the fastest way to get a good understanding of the passage is to summarize each paragraph with a quick phrase or sentence quickly, and then synthesize those summaries into one broad statement about the passage. This obviously won’t contain every relevant detail about the passage, but it will help you understand what the passage is driving at.
Paragraph 1: Cameron’s work was not fine art, but it captured real life and charm in the Victorian era.
Paragraph 2: The medium of photography forces us to see both the reality of the people in the image, and the reality they are trying to recreate through their dress and manner.
Paragraph 3: The amateurism of the photographs does not negate their artistry, and it can be unironically enjoyed.
Takeaway: Cameron’s works, though not high art, capture the duality between reality and fantasy of the moments they depict, and they are charming.
Which one of the following most accurately expresses the main point of the passage?
The circumstances under which Cameron's fancy-subject pictures were taken render them unintentionally comical.
The peculiar charm of Cameron's fancy-subject pictures derives from the viewer's simultaneous awareness of the fictional scene portrayed and the circumstances of its portrayal.
The implicit claim of Cameron's fancy-subject pictures to comparison with the masterpieces of Western painting is undermined by the obtrusiveness of the sitters.
The most successful of Cameron's fancy-subject pictures from an aesthetic point of view are those in which the viewer is completely unaware that the sitters are engaged in role playing.
The interest of Cameron's fancy-subject pictures consists in what they tell us about the sitters and not in the imaginary scenes they portray.
Always predict the main point before diving into the answer choices. What’s the takeaway message from all of this? In short, Cameron’s pictures are special because of “their singular combination of amateurism and artistry.”
A. This is true, but it’s too narrow to express the main idea of the passage. The author doesn’t just say that Cameron’s pictures are unintentionally comical and leave it at that. The point is that her pictures are enjoyable to look at for reasons including the unintentional comedy.
B. This summarizes the main point well. The author talks about the obvious fakeness of the scenes depicted in Cameron’s pictures and then goes on to explain why this makes her pictures so charming.
C. What? The passage doesn’t say anything is “undermined by the obtrusiveness of the sitters.” The quirkiness of the subjects is what the author likes about these photos.
D. No, the author argues the opposite. The viewers’ awareness is what makes the pictures appealing.
E. No, the author doesn’t say that Cameron’s pictures are interesting just because of what they tell us about the sitters. It’s the combination of amateurism and artistry that makes her pictures interesting.
The author mentions the props employed in The Passing of Arthur as
examples of amateurish aspects of the work
evidence of the transformative power of theater
testimonies to Cameron's ingenuity
indications that the work is intended ironically
support for a negative appraisal of the work
The author brings up The Passing of Arthur props in the last paragraph, right after praising the “singular combination of amateurism and artistry” in Cameron’s pictures. The phrase “for example” indicates that these props are an example of a way in which the pictures exhibit amateurism.
A. Yes, this matches our prediction. The author prefaces the discussion of the props with “What gives Cameron’s pictures of actors their special quality … is their singular combination of amateurism and artistry.”
B. No, Cameron’s subjects were only creating a photograph. They weren’t in a theater setting.
C. No, this might be tempting because it seems entirely possible that the author would use the word “ingenious” to describe Cameron, but there’s no evidence to suggest that the props demonstrate ingenuity.
D. No, there’s no suggestion of ironic intention in the passage.
E. No, the author is fond of Cameron’s work.
Which one of the following, if true, would most help to explain the claim about suspension of disbelief?
Sitting for a painting typically takes much longer than sitting for a photograph.
Paintings, unlike photographs, can depict obviously impossible situations.
All of these sitters for a painting do not have to be present at the same time.
A painter can suppress details about a sitter that are at odds with an imaginary persona.
Paintings typically bear the stylistic imprint of an artist, school, or period.
This is almost like a Paradox question on LR. The correct answer will provide a new piece of information that helps to explain why we can suspend our disbelief when we look at a narrative painting but not when we look at a narrative photograph.
A. No, the process of creating a painting versus a photograph has no relation to the effect it has on the viewer once it’s complete.
B. No, this only makes the “paradox” harder to explain. Why would we be more easily able to suspend our disbelief when looking at an obviously impossible situation in a painting?
C. So what? This is wrong for the same reason A is wrong.
D. Perfect. Right after the cited line, the author says, “We are always aware of the photograph’s doubleness—of each figure’s imaginary and real personas.” So a photographer cannot suppress details about a sitter that are at odds with an imaginary persona. If a painter can suppress such details, then they can present their subject as only the imaginary persona. That would explain why viewers can suspend their disbelief when looking at a painting but not when looking at a photograph.
E. No, it’s not clear what relevance such an imprint would have. Plus, even if paintings do have these imprints, this doesn’t say that photographs don’t have them, so we can’t distinguish paintings from photographs on this basis.
Based on the passage, Cameron is most like which one of the following in relation to her fancy-subject pictures?
a playwright who introduces incongruous elements to preserve an aesthetic distance between characters and audience
a rap artist whose lyrics are designed to subvert the meaning of a song sampled in his recording
a sculptor whose works possess a certain grandeur even though they are clearly constructed out of ordinary objects
an architect whose buildings are designed to be as functional as possible
a film director who employs ordinary people as actors in order to give the appearance of a documentary
In the middle of the last paragraph, we see examples of how the use of totally ordinary props in a certain portrait adds to the effect of “romantic fantasy.” At the end of this paragraph, the author compares these photos, regardless of their cobbled-together props, to “good amateur theatricals one … recalls with shameless delight.”
The author is giving us a clear picture of the unlikely success of the whole endeavor, not in spite of but rather because of the makeshift materials’ charm.
A. No, the intention of Cameron’s improvised props isn’t to distance the viewer. It seems that she just improvised for the sake of making things work, not to create an intentional aesthetic effect.
B. Cameron doesn’t have a subversive role here, either. She’s not trying to point out some deeper meaning behind the scenes she’s portraying.
C. Absolutely. There’s an ironic charm to her portraits because of their haphazard, anachronistic props. If you saw a sculpture that impressed you with a “sense of grandeur” even though it was made of plastic forks and empty soup cans, it’d hit that same note as Cameron’s photographs.
D. No, Cameron’s not that practical. She’s trying to create a fanciful world in these photos.
E. The idea of ordinary people here may be tempting, but this doesn’t quite fit. A director intentionally using ordinary people to give an ordinary, documentary-type style to his film is not ironic—it’s perfectly sensible. Cameron, however, uses ordinary things out of necessity, not to intentionally give a certain aesthetic to the pictures.
Based on the passage, the author would agree with each of the following statements EXCEPT:
A less realistic medium can be more conducive to suspension of disbelief than a more realistic medium.
Amateurishness is a positive quality in some works of art.
What might appear to be an incongruity in narrative photograph can actually enhance its aesthetic value.
We are sometimes aware of both the real and the imaginary persona of an actor in a drama.
A work of art succeeds only to the extent that it realizes the artist's intentions.
Because this is an Agree EXCEPT question, each of the wrong answers will be supported by evidence in the passage. The correct answer will not be supported—and may even be contradicted—by the passage.
A. The author would agree. Painting is less realistic than photography, and the author says in the second paragraph, “When we look a narrative painting we can suspend our disbelief; when we look at a narrative photograph we cannot.”
B. This is directly supported by the first sentence of the last paragraph: “What gives Cameron’s pictures of actors their special quality—their status as treasures of photography of an unfathomably peculiar sort—is their singular combination of amateurism and artistry.”
C. This is also supported by the final paragraph: “In The Passing of Arthur, for example, the mast and oar of the makeshift boat representing a royal barge are obviously broomsticks and the water is white muslin drapery. But these details are insignificant. For once, the homely truth of the sitting gives right of place to the romantic fantasy of its director.”
D. This is supported by the second-to-last sentence of the second paragraph: “Theater can transcend its doubleness, can make us believe (for at least some of the time) that we are seeing only Lear or Medea.” The use of the words bolded above suggests that we don’t always view theatrical characters as only their imaginary personas. We’re sometimes aware of both their real and imaginary personas.
E. This is the answer because the author never says this. If an artist like Cameron intended for a photograph to be professional and believable, but it instead came off as amateurish in a way that increased the photograph’s aesthetic value, the author would still find it to be a success.
The passage provides the most support for inferring that in Cameron's era
there was little interest in photographs documenting contemporary life
photography was practiced mainly by wealthy amateurs
publicity stills of actors were coming into vogue
there were no professional artist's models
the time required to take a picture was substantial
Remember the word “infer” is not an invitation to speculate. We just want a boring, obvious answer that’s clearly supported by evidence in the passage.
A. Who knows. Cameron happened to focus on photographing actors, but we aren’t told anything about other photographers of the time, so we can’t infer that there was “little interest” in photographs of contemporary life.
B. Maybe, but it’s never stated in the passage, so we don’t know.
C. Cameron’s pictures were not “publicity stills,” and we aren’t told enough about other photographers of the time to say what was “coming into vogue.”
D. No, just because Cameron’s photographs displayed “amateurism” doesn’t mean that there were no professional artists’ models.
E. Yes, this is supported by the mention of “faces … blurred because they moved” in the first paragraph and “trying desperately hard to sit still” in the second paragraph.
The discussion of suspension of disbelief in the second paragraph serves which one of the following purposes?
It is the main conclusion of the passage, for which the discussion of Cameron's fancy-subject pictures serves as a case study.
It introduces a contrast the author uses in characterizing the peculiar nature of our response to Cameron's fancy-subject pictures.
It is the key step in an argument supporting the author's negative appraisal of the project of narrative photography.
It is used to explain a criticism of Cameron's fancy-subject pictures that the author shows to be conceptually confused.
It draws a contrast between narrative painting and drama to support the author's conclusion that Cameron's fancy-subject pictures are more like the former.
The “willing suspension of disbelief” is that idea that, while we’re experiencing a piece of fiction, whether a book, painting, movie, or whatever else, we let ourselves believe it’s real for a minute.
The author is saying that a photograph doesn’t give us that option: We never forget that the people in the photograph aren’t actually the characters they’re posing as. With a painting, on the other hand, we can suspend our disbelief if the painter has portrayed the story well enough.
A. The mention of this concept in the second paragraph is too specific to be the conclusion of the whole passage.
B. Exactly. It’s the funny contrast between “Look, it’s King Arthur!” and “Huh, that’s Alfie the gardener.” We can never lose that double-think in Cameron’s photographs. That’s the “peculiar nature” of looking at them.
C. The author seems to support Cameron’s narrative photography, so this answer is out.
D. No one is criticizing her photos here.
E. No, the author is describing a contrast between photos and narrative painting here, not a contrast between painting a drama. And the author doesn’t conclude that Cameron’s photos are more like narrative paintings.
The main purpose of the passage is
to chronicle Cameron's artistic development as a photographer, which culminated in her masterpiece The Passing of Arthur
to argue that the tension between Cameron's aims and the results she achieved in some of her works enhances the works' aesthetic value
to show that Cameron's essentially theatrical vision accounts for both the strengths and the weaknesses of her photographic oeuvre
to explain why Cameron's project of acquiring for photography the prestige accorded to painting was doomed to failure
to defend Cameron's masterpiece The Passing of Arthur against its detractors by showing that it transcends the homelydetails of its setting
Why does the author waste our time with this? They want to convince us that Cameron’s pictures are “wonderful” and “special” because of their peculiar “combination of amateurism and artistry.”
A. No, the author’s purpose isn’t to chronicle the history of Cameron’s career.
B. Yes, the author praises Cameron’s “combination of amateurism and artistry” and goes on to say, “For once, the homely truth of the sitting gives right of place to the romantic fantasy of its director.”
C. No, the passage compares Cameron’s works to theatricals, but it doesn’t claim that she had “theatrical vision,” nor does it discuss “weaknesses of her photographic ouevre.”
D. No, the author considers Cameron’s pictures “treasures of photography,” not “doomed to failure.”
E. No, the passage never even mentions detractors of The Passing of Arthur.