The Beggar Maid

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Formalist.

 

Formalist.

When photography was introduced in 1839, it shocked the world for its ability to faithfully render the world in unprecedented detail. Because photography’s technical nature seemingly offered an objective and unmediated rending 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 ordinary 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 rep resented. The variations of shade, and the gradations of both linear and aerial perspective are those of truth itself in the supremeness of its perfection.

 

The camera was praised for its ability to not only replicate and fix the world on paper, but to access a reality more truthful than the human eye can observe. Not only could a camera take in infinitely more detail about a scene that the mind is capable of processing and holding, but photography was quickly applied to scientific fields of observation and discovery - the first x-ray image was taken in 1895, for example, and applied photographic principles to learn more about magnetic and electrical fields. This faith in the power of photography to reveal the universe stretched so far that spirit photographs, claiming to depict the spirits of loved ones who had passed away, became popular.

Emerging out of this absolute trust in a photograph’s truth, formalist readings of photography focus on what can be seen and “proven” in the composition of the image itself, believing the photograph to be like a semiotic index of truth. A formalist view of art examines photographs as aesthetic objects and search for meaning in the structural, visual, and formal composition of an image, rather than its narrative content or in the social implications or historical practices that make up its meaning.

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 examination of a photograph, one might examine the choice of lens (and therefore the depth of field, distortion of a scene), the choice of film or medium, the cropping, framing, composition, the arrangement and formal contrast or juxtaposition of elements within the frame, and the subject chosen. Attention here might be given to Alice’s stare, which seems to directly engage the photographer - indicating that this image might have been taken at eye-level by a crouching photographer - Alice’s cupped hand, which, rather than an outstretched beggar’s hand might hold the audience at bay, seems to draw the audience in, the clean appearance of her feet and neat appearance of her hair- both of which suggest that she is not a true beggar, but a child playing pretend. Further examination might reveal the trampled flowers at Alice’s feet, which suggest that this image has been taken before, and most likely was meant to be viewed in conjunction with a similar photo Carroll took on the same day. Finally, taking note the rags draped around Alice reveal her exposed chest and nipple, a detail which has both been excused as in keeping with other portraits of Victorian children which included nudity as a way of depicting innocence, and condemned of revealing Carroll’s own pedophilic fantasies.

A formalist reading might also note that the composition of the image was inspired by and directly references an eponymous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, 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.

This formalist approach re-emerges in the modernist photography of the first half of the 20th century, which attempted to put aside affect and examine the camera’s role as a mechanical and technological tool, focusing their attention on the lines and compositional elements of modernity, technology, architecture, form, and generally on the compositional aspects of a photograph which foreground “the processes of representation and perception.” John Szarkowski, the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, also attempted to bring a sense of formalism to photography through his attempts to clearly define photography and lend legitimacy to the medium, giving critical attention to the formal aspects and characteristics of photographs his 1966 publication, The Photographer’s Eye.

 

Tom Gunning has referred to what he calls the “truth claim” of traditional photography - the idea that a photograph is an “index” - or a direct impression of reality, like a footprint in the sand, indicating what has been.

“Levinson relates this characteristic of the photograph to its objectivity and reliability, echoing Andre Bazin's belief that photography is free from the "sin" of subjectivity.”

But the idea that the world can be proven through photographs is an oversight of some technical considerations. First of all, the idea that the photograph is an index overlooks some basic technical considerations, such as the fact that a photograph on every level represents a manipulation and divergence from reality - lens, film, angle, exposure, cropping, and moment chosen…

Photography becomes a series of representations of the real. 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'."

  1. The subject of the photograph, Alice Liddell, is clearly defined from 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 frame, so there is no confusion that she is the sole subject of interest. She seems to stare directly at the photographer. Although Alice is playing the role of a beggar, her neat hair and clean appearance betray her as being an upper-class child playing pretend. Alice was actually the daughter of an Oxford dean, and this photograph was taken in the gardens of Christ Church, Oxford.

  2. 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 “beckoning” pose, as she seems to ask the viewer to come closer to her, rather than how the outstretched arm of a real beggar would signal a viewer to keep their 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 from the 45-second exposure time that the wet collodion process necessitated. This long exposure time is also why many of Carroll’s portraits of children show them laying or leaning against solid objects or with their eyes closed.

  3. 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, 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. In fact, a previous attempt at “The Beggar Maid” was conducted a year before - when Alice was 4.

  4. Perhaps 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 and 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. 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 do less to safely separate his work as “art” and perhaps make a more significant transgression into real life.

 

Read More:

Information about Alice - Lindsay Smith - 2015, Simon Winchester 2011

https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/education/learning-resources/education-kits/photography/modernism/

The Daguerreotype by Edgar Allan Poe, 1840, http://www.daguerreotypearchive.org/texts/P8400008_POE_ALEX-WEEKLY_1840-01-15.pdf

What’s the point of an index? Tom Gunning

Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire, 198.

Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, edited by John Hannavy, p. 520

 
 
 

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