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Alice Liddell of Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland photography criticism





"Truth value" vs. "art value"

            Though the invention of photography is often remembered as being led by a series of technological discoveries and advancements, spurred by the empirical achievements of the medium, so too was it led by its romantic possibilities and for its capacity to create images of beauty and imagination. When Henry Fox Talbot published the introduction “The Pencil of Nature” in 1844, he not only stressed the scientific achievements of photography but also included a section detailing how photography could be appreciated purely for its aesthetic qualities, and the photographic processes whose invention he is credited with, the calotype, is derived from the Greek word “kalos,” meaning beautiful, and “tupos,” meaning impression. Rather than a record of fact, photographs can be said to offer up a rendering of fancy, or that which the photographer wished to see, keep, and convey. Beauty is seen as achieved in the perfection of the image – in the marvel of its very rendering, and the simplicity which is mastered in its stillness.

            Contrary to popular belief, there is no pure point of origin in the history of photography – no moment in time when photographs were either believed for their truth without question or accepted fully for their role as an art. In fact, as Jennifer Tucker emphasizes in her book, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, photography does not have a pure origin story, and photographs were not naïvely accepted as truth by the Victorians. In fact, at the time of its invention, photography was actually considered to be less accurate than drawing for observation of the natural world, as the production of photographs requires manipulation by human hands but not the same studied attention to detail. 


            This timeworn limbo between the objective and subjective qualities of the photograph, science and aesthetics, truth, and artifice, has been an essential concern in every period of photography's investigation, as the interpretation of photographs has always been stretched between the two poles of science and art.

            Photographers have reckoned with the division between artistry and exactitude in photography in different ways. In the late 19th century, photographers Emile Zola and Peter Henry Emerson aligned art with science by praising the natural, realistic capabilities of the photograph as art. Emerson, trained as a physician, began photographing anthropological images and scenes of the natural world in a documentary style, but then became enchanted by the power of the camera to capture the full range of light tones and textures, and began to see photography as an art with the potential to advance the aims of science. Emerson believed that an artist had to do more than transcribe reality, however, and should instead mimic how the eye sees - sharply focusing on the subject of the photograph and allowing the background and peripheral details of the scene to fade away. Emerson later recanted the theories he had put forth in Naturalistic Photography with his pamphlet The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1890), in which he took a new view on photography which viewed it as more limited as an art form than he had originally argued due to its technical basis.


            Although Emerson expressed doubts about the capability of a photograph to be an art, many photographers understood his work on naturalistic photography as advocating the pursuit of a move towards aesthetics and subjective expression and admired his soft-focus backgrounds, and photographers in the Pictorialist and Photo-Secessionist movements, in addition to mimicking the conventions of art, sometimes took extreme steps to manipulate their images, including taking them out-of-focus, scratching their surfaces, creating composite images, and inventing a variety of printing processes and styles intended to complicate the photographic process.  


            Some critics argue that if Carroll’s images can be read and understood as art, they cease to be problematic. For example, though Carroll’s images of nude children are shocking today, idealized, romanticized, and staged images were a common favorite with Pictorialist photographers. Pictorialist images often included nude or romanticized images of children – comparing them to cherubs or angels and viewing their innocence on a spiritual level. A reading that takes into mind this debate might note the artistic conventions that Carroll was consciously mimicking, such as the contemporaneous Victorian conventions of child photography.

            But the conflict in the interpretation of Carroll’s photographs is their refusal to side with either reality or fiction, innocence or experience, science, or art. Though Carroll was constantly dressing his sitters in costume and inventing stories as he photographed, his nude photographs are almost alarmingly real, creating an image that consists no more than of the body of a child in the viewer’s mind. Although some of his images are colored in to suggest fantastic landscapes of beauty, the threat of reality is apparent, as the majority of the photographs are still straight-on and direct.


            Critics of Carroll’s art have been accused of both sexualizing children and refusing to acknowledge their sexuality, and some have argued that the very act of romanticizing, glorifying, and idealizing childhood is problematic in itself. After all, a photographer’s desire to see has the potential to overshadow the reality of an object or scene by dominating it with the photographer’s own perspective. Though Carroll's fantasies may imagine wonderful, inconsequential worlds, such mental whimsy cannot be conjured without confusing or negating reality. The enchantment and the promise of beauty in art may disguise offenses and render injustices apparently mollified – creating a fairy tale meant not merely to delight and entertain, but also to excuse, ensnarl, and entrap.


            Even today, the idea of a photograph of nudity seems more potent morally ambiguous than a similarly sentimentalized painting. Photographs present a flat plane upon which everything is presented at once – sex and death and nostalgia – and the photograph is incapable of making these divisions itself or assigning any qualifications or hierarchy of importance to its subject. As a three-dimensional space projected upon two dimensions, it creates series of undiscriminating relationships. The conventions which come along with art force us to define sharply what we consider to be beautiful, and so even inject order into our emotions.  Though photographs present themselves through an abundance of detail, they present a forced perspective, one which does not elaborate, explain, or defend itself. And yet they ask to be understood, presenting a story with holes for us to fill for ourselves.


1. Photography was used to advance studies in phrenology, a practice where measurements were taken of sitters’ heads to make judgments about their personalities, character, and intelligence. Phrenology advanced the notion that the camera is capable of revealing hidden truths about its subjects, and was also used to prove the “superiority” of the upper classes. In the 19th century, Alphonse Bertillon created the pictured system of classification for identifying the traits of criminals - a system which photography theorist Alan Sekula criticized in as an attempt to justify social control with positivistic reasoning. (Seukula 1986, 55)

2. Phrenological studies took measurements of sitters’ heads to make judgments about their personalities, character, and intelligence, argued for the capability of the photography to reveal more than what the naked eye could see, and were used to prove the “superiority” of the upper classes. Carroll’s uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, who gave Carroll his first camera, was also a “Commissioner of Lunacy,” or a person in charge of inspecting and overseeing the welfare of those committed to asylums.Some scholars have traced the relationship between Carroll’s relationship with his uncle and exposure to other Commissioners of Lunacy to themes in his literary and photographic work, and the investigation in his work of the ordering principles of madness and nonsense. (Kohlt 2016 ).

3. In addition to being a photographer, Lewis Carroll was fascinated by what truth the visible world could reveal and the potential of the visual to lead to scientific discovery.​Carroll equipped his rooms at Oxford with microscopes, telescopes, kaleidoscopes, magic lanterns, and distorting mirrors, and is also purported to have enjoyed experimenting with mirror-writing, playing music boxes backwards, and drawing perspective pictures. Carroll was fascinated by those instruments which twisted and turned the real, and transformed the physical world before the eyes, both aiding in sight and creating an aura of new worlds of unreality and illusion.​ But although Carroll photographed a few landscapes and Oxford's natural history museum, he was more interested in the potential of photography for art than for science. Most of his portfolio consists of portraits, many of them staged and imaginative, and Carroll himself seems to have seen his photography as an art, as he exhibited his work with the Photographic Society in London and often gave his photographs the titles of literary works. (Nickel 2002, 16)

4. Emerging out of an age of exploration and the subsequent need to consolidate new information about the world, a preoccupation with tasks of classification and observation persisted through the 19th century.  Empirical studies such as taxonomy, philology, phrenology, physiognomy, and other fields that used the physical to prove the invisible, mental, or spiritual, and clarify psychic aspects of nature and humanity became of supreme interest, and photography took a central role in their development. As the Victorians discovered, not only could a camera take in infinitely more detail about a scene that the mind is capable of processing and holding, but photography could expand scientific fields of observation and discovery – the first x-ray image was taken in 1895, for example, and photographs of magnetic and electrical fields soon followed. Faith in the power of photography to capture more than the eye could see propelled science in the tradition of the camera obscura, an instrument used for naturalistic observation of the world, and the ways in which visual evidence could be used to learn more about the world.

5. What are the allowances of art? ​ This is one of the surviving nude portraits made by Lewis Carroll. Although some have read it as fitting in with Pictorialist conventions of photography, others find it problematic and site photography's allegiance to the real, as expressed by photography's role in empirical and positivistic studies. Click on other annotations to learn more.

6. Many other Victorian photographers, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander, and Henry Peach Robinson also took images of nude children. But although 19th and early 20th century biographies often viewed Carroll as an artist, looking to his images less for uncovering documentary evidence of his life and more for an expression of the ideal, innocence, or imagination, Carroll does not fit easily into Pictorialist conventions or the artistic conventions of his time. Julia Margaret Cameron was perhaps one of the Pictorialist movement’s most famous followers, and she was one of the first people whom Carroll showed his images. Carroll, though – a logician, mathematician, and perfectionist – was not taken in by the style and preferred a more accurate rendering of reality. Carroll praised the difficulty of the wet collodion process, which he felt in itself aided to the art of producing images. Carroll quit photography at the same moment that dry plate photography simplified and expedited the process of taking a photography, although some also point to a possible scandal involving taking an image of a seventeen-year-old girl in bathing dress caused him to cease his practice. (See Leach 1999)

7. A Pictorialist or aesthetically-focused reading of “The Beggar Maid” would note of the fact that its composition was inspired by and directly references an eponymous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (who called the image of “The Beggar Maid” the “most beautiful photograph he had ever seen”), and its composition is based in part on the traditions of Pre-Raphaelites – making use of aesthetically draped clothing, imaginative tableau, and its focus on a female figure. ​ But though the Pictorialist movement provides historical and aesthetic context to "The Beggar Maid," it does not fully explain or illuminate the tone of this controversial image. Victorian tableau were often sexualized, such as in this pictured image, and an excuse to escape some of the strict society policing and step into realms of sexuality that were not generally allowed in conventional Victorian society. However, it was largely not until the introduction of psychoanalysis in the mid-20th century that Carroll’s images began to be scrutinized for evidence of his life and psyche and his images of children became more readily seen as problematic, due in part to shifting societal concerns. (Read more: psychoanalysis).

8. Because of camera's role as a machine, photography has continually struggled with its potential as an art. ​ In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pictorialists and Photo Secessionists sought to elevate photography to the level of high art by emulating paintings and to create a deliberate and recognizable style apart from photography's documentary qualities. The Photo-Secessionists, led by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902, took these ideas to an extreme and made composite, manipulated, and colored images, and experimented with filters and lens coating and alternative printing processes. Carroll's photographs conform to some aspects of Pictorialist conventions - including posing figures in tableau and "creating" photographs rather than documenting scenes - but he notoriously disliked Julia Margaret Cameron's Pictorialist, inexact, blurry, and emotive portraits, and preferred exactitude in his own prints. But while Carroll may not have considered himself to be a Pictorialist, the Pictorialist and Photo-Secessionist movements have influenced how Carroll is read as a photographer. According to Douglas R. Nickel in his retrospective of Carroll’s photography, Dreaming in Pictures, “Carroll as an expressive photographer is first encountered in 1915, in the twilight of the Photo-Secession movement.” (Nickel 2002, 39)

Under these labels, Carroll has been read as purposefully creating art. For example, this image of Carroll’s aunts, Margaret Anne and Henrietta Mary Lutwidge has been read for its intentional use of symbolism and artistry. As Douglas R. Nickel writes: "Dodgson contrives to put his identical-looking maternal aunts, Margaret Anne and Henrietta May Lutwidge, on opposing sides of a chessboard. The backdrop is divided vertically into black and white domains, countering Henrietta, in dark dress and playing the dark pieces, with her sister playing white, and wearing a lighter dress that is 'checked.' Dodgson would go on to make other photographs of chess-playing families, notably the Rossettis, absorbed in geometrical conflict that metaphorically suggests the strategy and drama inherent in a stimulated social existence dictated by rules, hierarchies, and conventions." (Nickel 2002. 49-50) ​ The description here of Carroll "contriving" a scene and purposefully using symbolism in his photographs furthers the notion that his images were intended as and can be read as art, rather than documents of reality.

9. The Pictorialist movement represents an intentional aesthetic drive toward artistic expression. Those Victorian photographers who wished to argue photography as an art appealed to and conformed to conventions of painting and valued the quirks and misrepresentations of the medium - creating images with out of focus elements but adding in smoke or fog and printing their work on textured paper. Rather than being a straightforward record, a Pictorialist image emphasized the hand of the artist. Sometimes called “fuzzygrams,” these images might be intentionally out of focus, or scratched or made with brush strokes to emphasize their materiality and objecthood as photographs. This love of texture and evocative elements parallels contemporary trends like Instagram filters.

Read More:

Cohen, Morton. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. Macmillan, 1995. p. 41

Nickel, Douglas R. Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll. Yale University Press, 2002.


Julia Margaret Cameron

Kohlt, Franziska E. “The Stupidest Tea-Party in All My Life: Lewis Carroll and Victorian Psychiatric Practice.” Journal of


Victorian Culture, vol. 21, no. 2, 2016, pp. 147–167., doi:10.1080/13555502.2016.1167767.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography a Cultural History. Pearson, 2015, pg. 170

Naturalistic Photography


Robinson, Henry. Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers. British Library, Historic, 2011.

Sekula, Allan, “The Body and the Archive,” October, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986), MIT Press, pp. 3-64, Accessed: 25-02-2018 05:57 UTC

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

Tucker, Jennifer. Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005

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

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