Formalist

The truth of the surface.

 

 

            When photography was introduced in 1839, it shocked viewers with its ability to faithfully render the world in unprecedented detail. Because photography’s technical nature seemingly offered an objective and unmediated rendering of reality, photographs quickly became associated with the notion of “truth.”

            As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1840:

For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) is infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands. If we examine a work of conventional art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear–but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented. The variations of shade, and the gradations of both linear and aerial perspective are those of truth itself in the supremeness of its perfection.

 

            Traditional or analog photo-graphy (literally, “the writing of light”) occurs as the result of a chemical reaction of light-sensitive silver-halide crystals which record the pattern of light that falls upon them and thus record the image in front of the lens. Because of this direct, physical relation with the world, photographs seem to provide documents of reality and be compelled to tell the “truth.” Media historian and critic Tom Gunning has referred to this as the “truth claim” of photography, and photographs are often referred to as an index – a semiotic term taken from Charles Sanders Pierce to refer to a direct imprint of reality, like a footprint in the sand, tangibly pointing and linking itself to what has been.

 

            Emerging out of this absolute trust in a photograph’s truth, positivist readings of images view photographs as scientifically valid documents of nature, and art-historical formalist readings of photography focus their search for truth on what can be seen and “proven” in the form or composition of the image itself. Examining the image for its purely visual aspects, a formalist perspective locates meaning in the structural and formal composition of an image, rather than its narrative content or in the social implications or historical practices that make up its meaning. A formalist reading is driven by the belief that by understanding the surface, one can understand the meaning.  By understanding the compositional elements of an image and understanding the larger persistent structures of form, such as convention and genre – the ordering principles, repetitions, and organization of its form – one can understand the photograph.

            Lewis Carroll’s image “The Beggar Maid,” taken in 1858, depicts Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the story Alice in Wonderland. Because of the famous, mysterious, and ambiguous relationship between Carroll and Alice, every element in this image has been the focus of intense scrutiny in the hopes that it will reveal some truth deeper than its surface.

            In a formalist reading of a photograph, one might analyze the style and form of this image by examining the choice of lens (and therefore the depth of field of a scene), the choice of film, the cropping, framing, composition, the arrangement and formal contrast or juxtaposition of elements within the frame, and the subject chosen. (For a deeper reading, interact with the buttons and annotations on the image above).

          

            But though seemingly a detailed depiction of physical reality, a photograph is an abstraction and a literal inversion of the world – grabbing its inspiration from life but bouncing them through an internal series of mirrors and flipping them upside-down as it captures them on film or by digital sensors. In fact, the entire world of photography thrives on opposites – negatives are required to produce a positive, darkness is needed for the control of light – and the photographic process itself is one which centers on a series of developments and transformations. Even excluding the more obvious post-processing techniques which can alter a photograph, such as dodging, burning, cropping, reducing, enlarging, retouching, or other ways manipulating the appearance of a print, an "unmanipulated" photograph is still removed from reality and dependent upon and may vary a variety of mechanical factors – including the type of camera and lens used, the film stock, the aperture and shutter values, and the process of developing the film.

            With the complications of digital photography and Photoshop today we might look nostalgically back on a time when images couldn’t lie, but this uncertain relationship between the visible and the invisible - the question of photography's relation to truth - has persisted throughout the history of photography. Photographic manipulation and decontextualization have been present since the earliest years of the medium. (For a continuation and development of this conversation, see Digital Age or Tom Gunning’s essay, What’s the point of an index?)

            But beyond the technical considerations of an image, where does the truth of its message end and interpretation begin? Faith in the power of photography to not only replicate and fix the world on paper, but to access a reality more truthful than the human eye can observe, has blurred the lines of the photograph’s “truth.” Because photographs are thought to be documents of reality, they are sometimes assumed not to require any interpretation or criticism, but only a close examination of their elements of composition and design – the grammar of the image which makes up its message thought to be self-evident.

           

            We might assume that Alice stood in front of the camera during the taking of “The Beggar Maid,” but does her expression reveal a truth about her emotion that we can understand without interpretation? Does the position of Alice’s hand against her body and her slight lean away from the photographer and against the wall reveal more about the technical requirements of the exposure or the nature of Alice’s and Carroll’s relationship?

            While positivist thinking and formalist readings of photography may attempt to locate truth in the surface or composition of the photograph, readings of photography require and inevitably become tangled with interpretation. The “truth” in photography is therefore often painfully stretched from its tenuous physical impression to justify more speculative assumptions about its content, and readers of Lewis Carroll’s photography often justify their readings by locating them within the image itself instead of admitting their own agency in interpretation.

            For example, on "The Beggar Maid," the Met Museum’s website writes: “The intensity of the sitters' gazes brings to Carroll's photographs a sense of the inner life of children and the seriousness with which they view the world.” But how might this image have been read if no one had ever read Alice in Wonderland?

            One blogger, convinced of an underlying sexual tone to the image, writes: “note how her legs are parted, how her left arm points towards her crotch, which is also the point where the folds of her shift congregate and are at their most complicated, and how these folds repeat the shape of her cupped hand…”

            Although examining the surface can reveal much about an image, perhaps, as critic Geoffrey Batchen writes, "Those who follow Peirce for pragmatic evidence of an extra-photographic real... will, if they look closely enough 'find nothing but signs.'"

Annotations: 

1. Alice Liddell, the subject of this photograph, is clearly defined from the garden wall in the background of this image by the contrast between the white of her skin and clothing and the relative dark of the brick wall behind her. Carroll has also centered her in the frame, so there is no confusion that she is the sole subject of interest. She seems to stare directly at the photographer, directly engaging both the photographer and the viewer, and indicating that this image might have been taken at eye-level by a crouching photographer. Although she is dressed like a beggar, Alice was actually the daughter of an Oxford dean, and her neat hair and clean appearance betray her as upper-class child playing pretend.

2. The most shocking element of this image from a contemporary perspective is Alice’s exposed nipple, showing just above the drapes of her rags. While many critics find this to condemn Carroll of pedophilic attractions, others read it to be in line with Victorian conventions of child portraiture, which often depicted children as nude – a symbol of their innocence; their nudity thought to be non-sexual in nature. Carroll sought the permission of the mothers of those children he photographed, and Alice’s mother was most likely present for the taking of this photograph.

Contemporaneous images like this portrait taken by Julia Margaret Cameron often depicted nude children in states of innocence, although Carroll’s photography is notable for its lack of props such as wings or halos to offset his subjects’ reality in favor of more natural or realistic poses; his tableaus less safely separate his work as “art” and perhaps make a more significant transgression into real life.

3. Alice’s cupped hand indicates that she is playing the role of The Beggar Maid. Although some have read this pose as lending Alice a seductive or “beckoning” pose - seemingly asking the viewer to come closer to her, rather than outstretching her arm like a true beggar, keeping her distance - it is also likely that Alice would have had to keep her hand steady on her chest to avoid the blurring that would have occurred during the 45-second exposure time that the wet collodion process necessitated.

This long exposure time is also potentially a key reason for why many of Carroll’s portraits depict his younger subjects either laying or leaning against solid objects or with their eyes closed, such as in this wet collodion negative of another of Carroll's child-friends, Xie Kitchin.

4. Alice’s foot is clean and placed on a carpet for her comfort, betraying her true class. The trampled plants beneath her also suggest that this photograph was taken directly after another image of Alice standing in the same location with a different outfit, and that the two images were likely meant to be viewed as a diptych (suggested by Roger Taylor in Lewis Carroll, Photographer), which was a popular Victorian style of portraiture.

While “The Beggar Maid” is often scrutinized for its every detail, it is important to note that images (both in the Victorian era and today) are often taken in duplicate, or as part of a series. In fact, a previous attempt at “The Beggar Maid” was conducted a year before – when Alice was 5. (Nickel 2002, 16)

Read More:

Smith, Lindsay, and Lewis Carroll. Lewis Carroll: Photography on the Move. Reaktion Books, 2015.

Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Daguerreotype,” 15 January 1840

“What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs”, Tom Gunning

Batchen, Geoffrey. Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. MTP Press, 1999, p. 198.

Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography. Routledge, 2008., p. 520

Winchester, Simon. The Alice Behind Wonderland. Oxford University Press, 2011

 

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