The truth of a photograph lies in its ideology and function.
Photographs have lives beyond their roles as either documents of reality or subjective works of art. Photographs also exist as objects in the world, and are shaped, created by, and respond to certain social, political, and ideological conditions. Photographs can therefore both reflect and affect a truth through their use and through the politics of their art.
Inspired by the writings and thoughts of Karl Marx, a political theorist and economist who authored The Communist Manifesto in 1848, Marxist photography criticism investigates the social and political ramifications of an image and examines societies through the lens of class struggle and exploitation, as well as through the modes of production and distribution of an image that constitute and enforce its power dynamics.
Marxist criticism is concerned with economic power, as well as the economic conditions, material circumstances, and historical context of photographs and asks – how does the photograph reinforce the economic values that created it or reveal their circumstance or history? What implicit capitalistic ideology does the work contain? How does it reinforce the classism that exists between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat?
Often, these concerns can be observed and reflected simply in who or what has been deemed worthy of representation in an image. Especially as photography was a time-consuming and expensive task for the first several decades of its existence, it was therefore only practiced as a leisure activity by the upper-class elite. Photographs recorded by those of the elite, therefore, carry with them the ideologies and viewpoints of their makers.
Marxist photography criticism focuses its gaze on the concrete conditions of the real, often with the aim and belief that by exposing reality and class struggle it is possible to reach toward justice. By challenging representations and arguing against the determinism of formalist interpretation, photography critics like Allan Sekula believed in the power of photography and Marxist criticism to create activist viewers, conscious of observing and deconstructing the implicit biases and ideologies of representations. Marxist theories and preoccupations with the material aspects of photography and culture also re-emerge with postmodernism and the rise of the digital age, as the new possibilities of the production and distribution of the photographic image in the digital age called for a reevaluation of the potential of the photograph to affect change.
“The Beggar Maid” offers a variety of interesting Marxist interpretations. Viewed in conjunction with its diptych of Alice in her best clothing, this image might be read as an allegory that impressions are only skin-deep, or that class is artificial. Or, conversely, it could be read as arguing that “you are what you own” – that the clothes literally define the person. A Marxist interpretation might also look at the significance of the class difference between Carroll and Alice. Alice, the daughter of an Oxford dean, belonged to a higher social and economic class than Carroll, who was a lecturer of modest means and from a middle-class family. There are some theories that Carroll may have proposed marriage a marriage to Alice or her sister Lorina for when they were of marriageable age (and although this rumor is unsubstantiated and potentially more of the result of the result of a good narrative and psychoanalysis), there are also rumors that this marriage was turned down not because of their age difference, but because of their class difference.
This image could also be read for contemporaneous issues in child poverty, the influences and ideology of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of representation it comes from, and for the implications of its reproduction and distribution. Click on the annotations of the image to learn more.
1. Inspired by the writings and thoughts of Karl Marx, a political theorist and economist and authored The Communist Manifesto in 1848, Marxist photography criticism examines photographs through their social and political ramifications, as well as through the modes of production and distribution of an image that constitute and enforce its implicit power dynamics.
2. Walter Benjamin, another Marxist critic, is most famous in the history of photography criticism for his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (1936) Benjamin bridged many Marxist philosophies with art criticism, arguing in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that, in an age of increasing material reproduction – where works of arts can hypothetically be mass reproduced thousands of times, like photographs - works subsequently lose their authentic, inherent value as objects and the value of a work of art therefore becomes based instead on its potential for political influence. (These questions of authenticity and reproduction returned of reproduction come back with concerns about hyperreality. Hyperreality understand the world as not reproduced by "always already reproduced.") For Benjamin, the shattering of this capitalistic, ritualistic “aura” means that the focus of an photograph has the ability to shift to its content and politics, rather than its perceived value.
3. The movement of “New Objectivity” in photography emerged following World War I and consisted of decontextualized objects and an emphasis on structure and precision – a fascination that some have related to the increasing role of industry and technology in the 1920s, calling for a politicization of aesthetics, and as eventually leading into Modernism and New Formalism, which valued photographs for their formal qualities and utility. Others, such as theorist Siegfried Kracauer, have read such trends in photography as relating to the rise of photography as a capitalist process and increasingly popular mode of production, and the proliferation of photography in the 21st century as a rising dominant form of representation, a commodity aesthetic, and a colonializing medium. As Jonathan Crary writes in Techniques of the Observer, “Photography and money became homogenous forms of social power in the nineteenth century. They are equally totalizing systems for binding and unifying all subjects within a single global network of valuation and desire. As Marx said of money, the photograph is also a great leveler, a democratizer, a 'mere symbol,' a fiction 'sanctioned by the so-called universal consent of mankind' Both are magical forms that establish a new set of abstract relations between individuals and things and impose those relations as the real. It is through the distinct but interpenetrating economies of money and photography that a whole social world is represented and constituted exclusively as signs." (Crary 1990, 13)
4. As the cultural context and implicit politics of an image are of key importance in Marxist readings, Carroll’s photography can be read for the underlying class issues that determined their creation. Carroll, a great lover of children, notoriously disliked lower classes and the bodies of lower class girls, in particular, which did not assume the same conditions of childhood. Childhood ended much sooner for children of the working classes, as they were often sent to work in factories and mills while upper-class children stayed in school and enjoyed a prolonged childhood and presumed innocence. Class, therefore, was a determining factor in the perceived sexuality of children. As her hair and feet are clean in "The Beggar Maid", Alice is clearly not meant to be mistaken for a real beggar. A colorized version of “The Beggar Maid” was proudly displayed in the Liddell home, and, in the colorized version of this image, Alice’s skirt is painted red and to look like velvet – an image which compares dramatically with this image Carroll made of Annie Coates in 1857, a real girl from the lower classes and the daughter of the town grocer. Her hair is tightly and practically pulled back; she sits on stone stairs in plain and simple clothes, there being no farce of drapery. Her face does not convey cunning or knowing, but simply stares ahead, lost in dismal reverie. In this sense, Coates plays much more dangerously with the thin line between childhood and adulthood, whereas Carroll’s positioning of Alice seems to assume that she will ultimately be read as existing firmly within the realm of childhood. (Nickel 2002, 16) Although many who wish to defend Carroll’s photography as conforming to the principles of Pictorialist or Victorian art, which took cues from painting in depicting the nude form or children as unquestionably innocent, child prostitution was present during this time in London, and legal records certainly do not indicate the unfathomability of transgression. The Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861, for example, but defined a man’s sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of ten as a felony, declared intercourse with a girl between ten and twelve only to be a misdemeanor. (Mavor 1995, 20) The age of consent persisted during this time at thirteen until it was eventually raised by Parliament to the age of sixteen in 1885. Neither the role or nor the acceptance of nude images of children in art was unquestionably accepted without complication during the time when "The Beggar Maid" was created. As Douglas R. Nickel notes, “Oscar Rejlander’s nude photographs were shown at the annual exhibitions of the Photographic Society and even bought by Queen Victoria in the 1850s, for example, but the cultural climate soon grew more sensitive, and these same images were being denied placement in shows by 1865.” (Nickel 2002, 103)
5. Marxist criticism coincided with a rise in documentary photography, in part due to increasing shutter speeds and the transition from dry plates to perforated film. Cameras in the 1920s and 1930s became increasingly smaller, more automated, and more portable, and the first Leica camera was invented in 1924. These technological advancements coincided with advancements in photogravure techniques around the turn of the century which allowed for more visual newspapers and helped to shift the emphasis of popular photography from formal portraiture to the production, distribution, and journalistic potential of the image. Such overlapping concerns led to Reform Photography, which documented industrialization and urbanization during the late 19th and early 20th century and their effects on the working class. Although reform photography focused on the real and the machine, it did not dispense with affect and the personal vision of the photographer. Photographers like Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis sought an “affective transformation” of the image, seeking to capture the emotions of their subjects and scenes in order to cultivate emotional responses and spring their viewers to action. (Brown and Phu, 19) Marxist criticism focuses on how psychological experience is produced and affected by socioeconomic factors. Therefore, focusing on the emotional and the real leads to an affective expression and a fuller consideration of truth. Whereas psychoanalysis looks to the individual emotional experience, Marxism examines the greater psychological and ideological forces that shape experience, reception, and behavior.
6. Other artists, poets, and writers took up the legend of a king falling in love with a beggar main in their work, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Tenniel, and Julia Margaret Cameron.
7. As opposed to Pictorialism, which attempted to avoid relating photography with the machine, Marxism purposefully investigates the photograph as an object of mechanical production and looks to its mode of production and distribution. Marxist photography is concerned with photographs as objects, and Carroll’s images can, therefore, be read as literally objectifying his sitters, and as turning girls into commodities to be collected and traded. For Carroll’s image, this conversation can open into a discussion of how he colored and distributed his images. Carroll’s nude images were often not distributed to anyone but the immediate family, although others he sent out to be colored with the mother’s permission first.
8. Carroll’s photograph of Xie Kitchin, undoubtedly his favorite and most photographed child model, dressed in reference to a portrait by Joshua Reynolds of Penelope Boothby, daughter of Sir Brooke Boothby, 6th Baronet, is read as overtly sexual by some, and unquestioningly innocent by others – indicating instead Carroll’s natural ability and praiseworthy accessibility to his childhood subjects. Interestingly, even the painted portrait on which it is based has inspired multiple conflicting readings. While Reynold’s original portrait of Penelope Boothby is often understood as attempting to depict pure childhood innocence and the essential image of ideal Victorian childhood purity, its popular reinterpretation by Sir John Everett Millais as Cherry Ripe, perhaps seems more suggestive. Cherry Ripe, one of the most popular and reproduced images of its time, is often also taken as an example of the public appetite for representations of childhood in the Victorian era. The formal and traditional dress and idyllic country setting depicted harken back to the familiar conceptions of purity and innocence, but Cherry Ripe also speaks to the ways in which childhood was commodified. The Pears Soap Company bought the reproduction rights to Millais’s popular children’s paintings Cherry Ripe and Bubbles, for example, and used them successfully in advertisements for their products. As a color centerfold to the Christmas special of The Graphic Christmas annual, the painting was commissioned specifically to sell and sold 500,000 copies in its first edition. Money even had to be returned to an equal number of interested buyers whose demand outweighed the magazine’s production; the popularity of English girlhood spread like wildfire. (Mavor 1995)
Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Decisive Moment: Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Steidl, 2014
Marx, Karl, Capital, vol. 1 trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York, 1967), 91
Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. I.B Tauris, 1996.
Sekula, Allan, "The Traffic in Photographs," in Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973-1983 (Halifax, 1984), pp. 96-101
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, "Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography," in Photography at the Dock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 176
Tagg, John, “Power and Photography––A Means of Surveillance: The Photograph as Evidence in Law.” In Peter Hamilton [ed.]. Visual Research Methods. London and Oxford: Sage Publications, 2006
Tagg, John, "The Currency of the Photograph" in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London 1982), pp. 110-141