The pictorialist movement in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century photography seemed to reinforce the normative gender and moral codes of the period. If nude bodies were shown, it was usually with a moralizing or allegorizing intent, much like history painting. Even in nineteenth-century painting, there are many examples of paintings of recognizable nude people who are not playing a role of a god(dess), heroine, or allegory causing great controversy (for example Manet’s Olympia, Goya’s Naked Maja, just to name a couple). The pictorialists avoided this by making their photographs more “painterly,” by creating images with a syntax that reveals in some way what in painting would be called the “hand of the artist.” By making photographs that are slightly out of focus or that have a texture overlaid, the image used the visual language of paintings and thus avoided being accused of vulgarity.
Women in nineteenth-century pictorialist photography could therefore be used as models for form, or as biblical characters, or allegories. Julia Margaret Cameron created numerous images with women in peaceful garden settings, or as a loving mother or sister. While they may appear to be artful portraits, images such as these, and the one above, reproduce the heteronormative gender roles of the time.
Pomona is the name of the Roman goddess of gardens and of fruit-bearing trees. The title is the only way that a viewer would know that this woman is supposed to be Pomona, but she is standing in front of vines and leaves that appear to grow from her head and cascade over shoulders like hair. Whether or not the viewer has the title to identify the woman as a goddess, the fact that she seems to be “at one with nature” cannot be overlooked. Women were often photographed in gardens or with flowers, indicating their perceived close and instinctive connection to fertility, reproduction, and nature. Whether a viewer knows that the woman in the photograph above is supposed to be an allegory, or if it just seems like a portrait, it clearly wants to naturalize the woman’s relationship to the garden and therefore the cycles of fertilization and reproduction.