PetaPixel

A Look at The Unknown and Controversial Photography Career of Lewis Carroll

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Portrait of Charles Dodgson, aka: Lewis Carroll

He’s known as the author behind the famed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by most, but the breadth of his disciplines goes far beyond literature. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more commonly known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, was also a logician, mathematician, an ordained minister and a photographer… yes, a photographer.

In this article, we’ll share a collection of his work as we dive into his upbringing, his photography career and the controversy that surrounds it to this day.

Who is he?

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on January 27th, 1832, in Cheshire, England, to parents Frances Jane and Charles (there were at least four generations in the family with a male named Charles). His early youth consisted of education at home — fairly typical for 19th century children — and his archive of books that were saved through the years show just how promising his intelligence was at an incredibly young age.

However, from the time he could speak, Dodgson suffered from a stammer — a speech impediment that often caused him to stumble over his own words. It was this impediment that led him to Richmond Grammar School. From Richmond Grammar School, Dodgson transferred to Rugby School where, although he showed much dislike towards the sport, he excelled. One particular professor noted “I have not had a more promising boy at his age since I came to Rugby.”

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Apterix australis. 1857.

Upon leaving Rugby, Dodgson enrolled at Oxford under a member of his father’s college, Christ Church. But his stay at the school was short-lived. Two days after arriving in his dormitory, Dodgson was sent home after his mother tragically passed away.

As with his early educational career, college proved somewhat difficult for Dodgson as he tried and often failed to balance his enormous intelligence with the repercussions of distraction that often come with it. Ultimately, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts before returning to Christ Church as an educator, where he would work most of the remainder of his life.

From graduation on, Dodgson’s life seems to be a conglomeration of various skills, works and disciplines, almost all of them intertwining to some degree. Of course, from today’s perspective, his most notable career is that of writing, as it cemented his pen name in pop culture. But only acknowledging his literary accomplishments would do him a grave injustice. Which is good for us, because beyond writing, teaching, inventing, painting and mathematics, Carroll also took an interest in photography.

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Portrait of Irene MacDonalds. 1863.

Photography work

In the days when photography was just starting to establish itself as an art form, Dodgson took notice of the extremely precise and mathematical aspects of it. Influenced by his uncle Skeffington Lutwidge and his friend Reginald Southey, he picked up the hobby and — as with just about everything he tried in his life — he excelled almost immediately.

Throughout his 24-year career as a photographer he became a master of the medium, boasting a portfolio of roughly 3,000 images and his very own studio. His subjects were most often people, although he also photographed landscapes, dolls, dogs, statues, paintings, trees and even skeletons, as seen above.

Lewis Carroll. Fine Art Photography. Xie Kitchin. 1874.

Portrait of Xie Kitchin. 1874.

Dodgson considered making it more than just a hobby in the early years of his photographic career, but nothing ever came of it, and to this day we have no idea why. In 1880 Dodgson ended his photo career after the dry-plate process replaced the wet collodion process he had spent so many years mastering. It’s been said that he believed the switch to the dry plate process made photography too easy; so much so that anyone could do it (sound familiar?).

How is it then, that after an extremely successful 24-year career in photography and with a portfolio consisting of over 3,000 images, many people have never known of “Lewis Carroll” as a photographer? Well, there are a few possible reasons, two of which stand out.

The first is that much of his photographic portfolio is missing. Fewer than 1,000 images have survived. And while there’s no definitive reason for this, my research indicated that time is to blame and has destroyed much of his work, as the wet collodion process wasn’t always permanent.

But it wasn’t just time that destroyed his work. It seems many of his photographs have been deliberately ‘erased,’ similar to how many of his writings have been cut and ripped out of his journals, which leads us to the next point.

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Controversy

From around the 1930s on, biographers and scholars alike have questioned the motivation and nature behind Dodgson’s relationship with the younger females in his life.

While nothing is certain at all, it’s widely known that many of the subjects in his writing, as well as his photography and paintings, were young girls… usually between the ages of 10-15. Speaking specifically to his photographic work, it’s said that over half of his remaining portfolio depicts young girls, many of whom are nude or semi-nude.

His affection for younger girls, many of whom inspired the stories he wrote, has led many to hint at or downright conclude that Dodgson may very well have been paedophilic in nature.

Lewis Carroll. Fine Art Photography. Alice. 1859

Portrait of Alice Liddell. 1859.

The young girl most often associated with these claims is none other than Alice Liddell (pictured above), daughter of a family friend of Dodgson. In both his writings and photographic work, she and characters in her likeness came up consistently — most notably as the inspiration for the protagonist in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — despite him saying any connection was merely coincidental.

And not only was the use of Liddell in his works part of the controversy, Liddell later named one of her own children Caryl, a name rather similar to Dodgson’s pseudonym. However, as did Dodgson, Liddell claimed it was merely coincidental.

The entire controversy is an almost century-long debate, and one that doesn’t seem to be making any major progress in either direction. And so we’ll drop the debate and focus on the photography instead.

Below are a few more photographs from his collection:

Portrait of Thomas Combe. 1860.

Portrait of Thomas Combe. 1860.

Portrait of Edith (left), Lorina (center) and Alice (right) Liddell. 1860.

Portrait of Edith (left), Lorina (center) and Alice (right) Liddell. 1860.

Portrait of Alice Liddell. 1858.

Portrait of Alice Liddell. 1858.

Alexander Munro & wife

Portrait of Alexander Munro & wife (left) Portrait of Arthur Junior Hughes (right).

We may never know who Charles Dodgson was on a psychological level. But as someone who is known to the public ONLY as a writer, it’s fascinating to discover that he spent two and a half decades making a name for himself as a prolific photographer.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this look into the unknown photographic life of Charles Dodgson, or rather Lewis Carroll. I’ve linked as many sources as I came across while writing this article, so if you’d like to take a more in-depth look at his life, I would highly suggest doing so. He was a brilliant man of many trades, whose life is full of interesting work.


Image credits: Images by Charles Dodgson, courtesy of Amadelio


 
  • Eins7ein

    i just want to say thanks for the excellent article. Always love to learn something new and though not short, it was a breeze to ready. I enjoyed it very much. You write beautifully.

  • http://www.gannonburgett.com Gannon Burgett

    Thank you, sir! I’m glad you appreciated it. This proved to be one of the most difficult articles I’ve written since starting at PetaPixel almost two months ago, due to the amount of information and intertwining timeline of Charles Dodgson’s life.

    It’s always nice to hear some feedback, both constructive and critical.

  • OtterMatt

    I learned something today. And that makes today better than yesterday.

  • Mark Zimmerman

    Interesting, but please explain what you mean here: “my research indicated that time is to blame and has destroyed much of his work, as the wet collodion process wasn’t always permanent.”
    How so? If done correctly, Collodion is extremely permanent.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Great article – wish we had more of this on PetaPixel, and less linkbait.

    Thanks for the insights Gannon.

  • JamesA

    Not really unknown, he is featured in many books on the subject.

  • lex

    There was a small show at SFMOMA in 2002.

    http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/74

  • Devorah Kaye Goldstein

    I didn’t realize his photography was unknown; i’ve know of it for years. the portraits of alice are quite famous, actually, and are almost always featured in articles related to “alice in wonderland.”

  • Paolo Bubu

    Wow, he looks like Benedict Cumberbatch!

  • ianmcc

    I find the use of the word “unknown”a bit misleading. His work has been widely known. I studied it in my history of photography course in college in the 80’s. If by “unknown” you imply the mass ignorance of the 150 years of history of the medium by everyone who bought a DSLR, then yeah I guess Carroll’s work along with generations of other amazing photographers remains yet to be “discovered”, here at PetaPixel. I encourage the site to delve more into the amazing history of photography.

  • Christopher

    There is a big difference between knowledge taught in specialized college courses and knowledge that is widely known. Millions continue to read the writings of Carrol, what percentage do you think know he was an early photographer?

  • ianmcc

    Probably the same percentage that have seen the various movies documenting his life, the best of which is Dreamchild. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089052/

    It’s all about context, when your post on a photographic website says Unknown it implies that the photographic community didn’t know about his work. The classic textbook on the history of Photography Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography mentions Carroll. http://www.amazon.com/The-History-Photography-From-Present/dp/0870703811

    But I guess the phrase “little known” doesn’t get the hits to the link like the mysterious “Unknown” does.

  • Kenneth Gray

    The City Art Centre in Edinburgh has some of his photographs and has exhibited them.

  • kj

    Agreed. “Little known” would have been a better choice.

  • Leonardo Afonso

    Don’t forget to mention that the Lidells broke relations with Dodgson between the writing of Wonderland and Looking-Glass, and that they refused his ‘request to court’ her when she was 12.

  • Phantomwise

    Do your research. He never requested to court her. He and the Liddells both agreed to separate to discourage rumors that he was courting the governess or Ina, Alice’s older sister who was becoming a young woman. They did this for about a year before resuming their friendship. Doesn’t sound like “broken relations” to me.

  • Phantomwise

    First, your portrait of “Charles Dodgson” is of Wilfred Dodgson, his brother.

    I’ve never heard of his stammering being the reason he went to Richmond. Source? (Besides Wikipedia; one that specifically mentions that was the reason Carroll went to Richmond)

    “Speaking specifically to his photographic work, it’s said that over half of his remaining portfolio depicts young girls, many of whom are nude or semi-nude.” Pardon? “Many of whom are nude or semi-nude”? According to Edward Wakeling, /the/ expert on Carroll’s photography, only 1% of his remaining photography contain nude or partly-clothed children (Woolf 256). I wouldn’t use the word “many”.

    That would have also been a good opportunity to point out that child nudity was an extremely popular subject amongst Victorian artists, including photographers. His contemporaries such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Rejlander both had nude child sitters.

    “In both his writings and photographic work, [Alice Liddell] and characters in her likeness came up consistently”. What an outlandish claim! Do you have any evidence to support it? I doubt you do. Alice was a namesake; the character was named after her, but was not her. He imagined the character younger and different looking from Alice, even in the manuscript he wrote and drew specifically for Alice Liddell. At the end of the manuscript, he makes it very clear that they are different: “But [Alice's] sister sat there some while longer, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and her Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and this was her dream: She saw an ancient city, and a quiet river winding near it along the plain, and up the stream went slowly gliding a boat with a merry party of children on board—she could hear their voices and laughter like music over the water—and among them was another little Alice, who sat listening with bright eager eyes to a tale that was being told, and she listened for the words of the tale, and lo! it was the dream of her own little sister.”

    Alice Liddell was not a muse (while you hadn’t used the word ‘muse’, it seems to be what you’re implying). She wasn’t even his favorite of the sisters (that was Ina, her older sister). The only thing that was special about her was that she recognized what a great tale “Alice in Wonderland” was and asked him to write it down (which I’ll add he didn’t really want to until Alice reminded him and he realized it had publishing potential). When she grew up, he never mentioned or talked to her (even though he was still in contact with other family members) until he contacted her so he could sell a facsimile of the manuscript.

    You also failed to mention that he took photographs of young women in what he called “acrobatic” or “swimming” dress, which he kept as costumes in his studio. These were the photographs that were specifically destroyed by his family to protect the reputation of himself and the ladies in them. While none survive, we know of their existence from his letters and diaries. (Leach 152)

    I think your article was one-sided, but it was fairer than others I’ve read. If you’d like to read more about his photographic work, I highly suggest “Lewis Carroll, Photographer” by Roger Taylor and Edward Wakeling.

    Woolf, Jenny. The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland. First US. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.

    Leach, Karoline. In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: the Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll. Revised Paperback. London: Peter Owen, 2009. Print.

  • Leonardo Afonso

    I can’t say my research was scholarly, but there are always ‘official press releases’ anyhow. I’ve already had heated debates when I wrote about it, but I just want to make clear that I am not claiming certainty over those events, and certainly I don’t mean to morally condemn Dodgson. I just think that the mystique over his personal life enriches our appreciation of his work, which is ultimately what matters most of course. Thank you for your comment.

  • MAB

    While seeing these photos is always interesting, and the article is nicely laid out, I agree with a lot of the people who commented on factual errors in it. I looked up the photo you put up as Lewis Carroll and it is, indeed, a photo of Lewis Carroll’s brother Wilfred Dodgson. Easy to find in Google images. It might be best to change it. If you compare photos of the brothers, there is no doubt. You only need to go online to discover many blogs and articles on Carroll — and academic libraries are full of researched bios on Carroll. He was one of the influential photographers of his time and many people in the world know of his photography. His work is not “unknown” which implies a discovery by the writer. I think when we do blogs, it is our duty to our readers to be very careful with our research.

    Also, historical background is important to set the tone of the times when Carroll worked. At the time these photos were taken many other avid photographers were photographing children. In the art world, It was time of “ethereal” perfection,spiritualism, and a kind of sensual and almost mystical romanticism shown by the works of the Pre-Raphaelites — who wanted a return to nature and a more natural form of beauty, using mystery, legends and mysticism.. And children were part of that – seen as the ultimate in purity and perfection. (Upper class children of course!). Whether or not Carroll was a repressed pedophile, can and will never be proved, only speculated on. But the history of the times does play into the questions of what made him tick.

  • MAB

    You might want to check out some of the comments re errors in this article.

  • MAB

    This is not Lewis Carroll, but his brother Wilfred Dodgson. Lewis Carroll has a much finer boned face.

  • MAB

    All research in my opinion must be as scholarly as we bloggers can make it. We must check and double check our facts. We should not be responsible for sending and posting information that is simply wrong – like the photo put up of Wilfred Dodgson instead of his brother Lewis Carroll. And once an error is pointed out and been verified by the blogger’s further research, it should be corrected. We must do our research in as scholarly a way as possible. Other wise we are passing on MIS-information.And the internet is already full of that.