Through the Camera Lens

Though best remembered for his beloved books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll actually picked up the camera well before the pen. From 1860 to 1885, Carroll (the pseudonym of the Reverend Charles Dodgson) dabbled in the relatively new field of photography, snapping thousands of portraits of Victorians, including lots of his friends and many more of children. You can see 75 of Carroll's vintage album prints in "Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

"It seems to me that what we celebrate in Carroll/Dodgson is his extraordinary imagination, as in his invention of Alice in Wonderland," says Anne Tucker, a curator at the MFAH. But she thinks that his inventive photography commands respect on its own.

Judging by the photos on display, it's clear that Carroll was quite a talented shutterbug. Huddling under the black cloth behind his old-fashioned camera, he had a keen eye for composition and an emotional flair that brought his photos to life.

While photography has become cheap, easy and accessible, in Carroll's day it was a time-consuming process that demanded a great deal of skill and knowledge. Taking pictures meant making one's own negatives and paper. Regular folks didn't start snapping their own photographs until George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera in 1888.

Because photography was so difficult, the Victorians considered having one's picture taken to be a special event that was entertainment in itself. "For Carroll," says Tucker, "photography was a passion, a source of extra income and a way to meet people."

The majority of Carroll's prints feature young girls, a subject that some say interested Carroll a little too much. But the photographer wasn't exactly a dandy Michael Jackson in ruffled sleeves. During the Victorian era, these images were seen in a different context. "Times change," says Tucker. "Whereas a young minister being seen with a widow wouldn't cause a stir today, we're suspicious of friendships with children. Victorian England was a very different time."

Tucker warns viewers against "bringing 20th-century post-Freudian values to a different era" and emphasizes that "the Victorians did not believe that young girls were sexual." In fact, one theory suggests that Carroll's family called attention to his "pure" friendships with children to divert suspicion from his many relationships with women at Oxford. Apparently, he was giving several of them more than just spiritual comfort.

Perhaps the most interesting shots are the ones Carroll staged to represent scenes from books and myths. "The theatrical photographs were actually great fun," Tucker says, adding that in pre-TV times, it was quite common for families to present home theatricals to entertain themselves.

"The pictures were the result of afternoons of invention," says Tucker. "It's photography at the service of a vivid visual imagination." That's not surprising coming from the man who gave us the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Walrus. Goo goo ga joob.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero