PRINT May 2002


Lewis Carroll

Take away the whiff of pedophilia in the photographs of Lewis Carroll and what’s left? Perhaps the idea that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Carroll, was playing on the boundaries between dreaming and waking and between theatricality and absorption. “Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll,” a traveling exhibition of seventy-six vintage prints organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and opening there August 3, will look at Dodgson’s photography from an art-historical perspective—that is, without the wink and smirk.

Enough speculation about whether this shy, stuttering Victorian did or did not propose marriage to Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when she was just eleven years old. Enough about Dodgson’s predilection for those intense little girls in their nighties, whom Vladimir Nabokov (a Carroll translator) described as “sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade.” It is time to look beyond the dreadfulness to the charade itself.

This is not to say that the little girls will get short shrift. While the show includes a few of Dodgson’s photographs of adults, boys, and prehistoric skeletons, as well as some pictures by his contemporaries—Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, and David Wilkie Wynfield, among others—it is almost wholly devoted to Dodgson’s pictures of girls playing beggars, princesses, dreamers, and sleepers. The difference is that this exhibition will give Dodgson the pre-Freudian interpretation he so richly deserves.

Consider St. George and the Dragon, 1875, Dodgson’s picture of a boy on a rocking horse pointing his long sword at a tall girl dressed in white. It’s hard to see past the repressed sexual content of this picture. But maybe it can be done. For one thing, as curator Douglas R. Nickel notes in his provocative catalogue essay, the picture is clearly and cheerfully fake. The sword is cardboard, the horse is wooden, and the dragon is a child in a leopard skin. Like Cameron, Dodgson liked to make tableaux referring to mythology and literature. And, like her, he didn’t mind showing the photographs “as the rudimentary play-acted constructions they are.” The scenes were left rough so that his Victorian audience could puzzle out the myths and stories they represented.

In 1888 Dodgson, who loved the theater, wrote an article titled “The Stage and the Spirit of Reverence” that included the line “What mattered it to us that all this was fiction?” He could have said the same of his photographs. “Feelings, beliefs, faith and visions were as real for him as steamships and top hats,” Nickel observes. Dodgson, who loved to play around with the conventions of language, chess, and logic, also fiddled with the conven-tions of representation. A Christian Platonist, he believed that what is seen on earth is “but a scaffolding for another reality not visible to human eyes.” He was loose about photographic representation because he knew it was not reality itself.

Dodgson’s skepticism, Nickel suggests, may also account for his fascination with representing otherworldly things and inner states: sleep, sleepiness, sleeplessness, and dreams. This exhibition includes a portrait of Xie Kitchin, one of Dodgson’s favorite models, asleep on a chaise; a double exposure of another child that shows both dreamer and dream; and a picture of Alice asleep in a garden. Dodgson also photographed waking reveries and what Nickel calls “languid introspection,” as well as varying states of attention and absorption. In one picture Dodgson’s niece Laura is “caught up” in her book; in another, Dodgson himself daydreams. While Nickel stops short of invoking Michael Fried, he seems to place Dodgson’s photographs squarely within the framework of absorption and theatricality.

But why oh why are so many of the subjects little girls? Dodgson’s interest, Nickel ventures, was neither prurient nor even personal. Girls simply played the part of innocents. That was the Victorian convention. Dodgson’s presentations of children as Cinderella and Rosamond, Nickel writes, “do not so much underscore the latent sexuality of the child (as we post-Freudians would have it) as they do an obvious lack of it.” If Dodgson’s subjects had been grown women, the sexual suspicions at the time would have been even greater. The Victorians viewed children as sexless, and that was exactly what allowed Dodgson to pose them.

“Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll” is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through November 10; the show will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the International Center of Photography, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sarah Boxer writes on photography for the New York Times.