Alice in Wonderland and Photography
On the 4th of July 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in London. Written by Victorian author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, author, mathematician and Oxford don, this fantasy novel has since made him famous all over the world. Less known is the fact that Dodgson was also an avid and early practitioner of photography. He took it up in 1856, first under the influence of his uncle Skeffington Lutwidge, and later, his Oxford friend Reginald Southey.
In that first year, he made about 2,700 photographs, the last of which he finished in 1880. Half of these are photographic portraits of children, predominantly girls, while 30 percent are of adults and families. Overall, Dogson produced a selection of self-portraits, group photographs, still lifes, landscapes, pictures of works of art, as well as featuring literary narratives and skeletons (including that of an anteater) and other props for anatomical studies. He even made a portrait of the Dodgson family doll, Tim. The majority of his surviving photos are in American collections, and 407 of those are at the Princeton University Library, which published a comprehensive album of them in 2002.
The incipient stage of photographic tools and techniques in the late 19th century gave Dogson the inspiration for the imaginative visual projection of scenes and characters in his later writing, including his iconic Alice series. “In the 1860s and ’70s Carroll captured the attention of the literary world with the extraordinary writing of the Alice books. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), among other conspicuously disruptive factors, the presence of the body itself and the peculiarly volatile apparitions of Wonderland creatures, as framed by an exclusively subjective vision, are particularly marked. These are factors that undoubtedly recall the photographic eye: in the new art, the sitter’s body, as shot by the eye/I of the artist, is the precondition for image reproduction. In the 1850s, daguerreotypes and photographs were still largely viewed as apparitions rather than as images, which, spectral as they might be, referred back to a body, absent but real and historically recorded. For this reason, the daguerreotype was called “the mirror with memory.”
Also, early photographs, because of the apparatus limits and the long exposure time, uncovered the inner disposition of the sitter’s real body to metamorphosis, deconstruction, and deformity, a condition that highlighted the body’s immersion in time to such a degree that was unique among previous art forms. In this context, Carroll’s relationship with his child friends/models, which for the first time was being cultivated in the gloomy and mysterious atmosphere of a photographic atelier, now acquired an unprecedented significance in that it nurtured a childhood vision that distanced itself from the idealized, metaphysical, ethical, and didactic approach of Romanticism and at the same time decidedly rejected the image of the “little adult” popularized by Victorian iconography.” (Rosella Mallardi, ‘The Photographic Eye and the Vision of Childhood in Lewis Carroll’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 107, No. 4, Fall, 2010).
Some of Dogson/Carroll’s photographs can be viewed here.