Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lewis Carroll, Photography and Memories of Childhood


I’m reading Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two of my favourite books from childhood, was the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898), a Victorian mathematics don at Oxford University.

In this post I’m concentrating on Charles’s keen interest in photography. This developed from his early drawings and sketches illustrating verses and short stories he wrote in the family magazines and booklets. By the time he was 24 in 1856 photography had become an absorbing pastime for him, encouraged by his uncle and fellow students at Oxford. He bought a camera, the necessary chemicals and the extensive and cumbersome equipment needed to take photographs. It was very different from photography today, when all you need is a small digital camera that goes easily in a pocket or handbag (unless you’re a professional photographer, or very keen amateur) and the results can be instantly seen.

He arranged his photographs in albums, all indexed and listed in registers. He took landscapes, architecture, drawings and sculptures – but his main interest was in portraits of people, his family, friends and Oxford colleagues. Photography gave Charles entry to the Oxford social world through his portraits, mainly of small children. He introduced himself to Alfred Tennyson, as a result of simply arriving uninvited when Tennyson was visiting friends in Coniston and proposing to take photographs of his children.

His main focus was the Liddell children. Henry Liddell was the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, where Charles had become Mathematical Lecturer in 1855. The Liddell family included Alice and her older sister Lorina. Charles was a great favourite with the Liddell family and the stories he told to them and in particular to Alice were later published as Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He became well known as a portrait photographer and took many photographs of friends’ families, enjoying the theatricality of dressing up, using props and composing scenes for his set pieces. He was particularly interested in the composition of his photographs for proportion and balance, and examined other photographers’ work at the Exhibition of he British Artists in London in 1857 “… chiefly for the arrangement of hands to help in grouping of photographs.”

Photography in the 1850s was a complicated and intricate business. You needed a darkroom to prepare the “plate” – film didn’t come into use until the 1880s – by pouring a gummy solution of collodion onto a glass plate. This had to be carefully prepared so that it wasn’t smudged or spoiled by dust particles and then carried to the camera. Once the plate had been exposed you then had to rush back to the darkroom to develop it and then it had to be fixed, varnished and allowed to dry.

For outdoor photography all the equipment, including a darkroom tent and water for rinsing the plate when there was no fresh water available, had to be transported to the countryside. There was so much equipment that Charles had to hire a porter and a carriage or horse-drawn van to carry it all. It was a major expedition and not surprisingly Charles didn't take many landscape photographs.

Photography is no longer such a difficult process, so much so that we take it for granted. My grandchildren are used to instant digital photographs and have no idea of what it was like when I was a child, anymore than I had any idea of what photography was like when my parents were children, let alone in the 1850s. My dad had a Kodak Box Brownie camera and I remember waiting for what seemed like ages for our black and white holiday photos to arrive back from the chemists. You had to be careful with loading the film not to expose it and had to remember to wind it on between photos. Later we had colour film and then the excitement of Polaroid cameras when you could hold the print in your hand as it developed – instant photographs!

This has sent me on a trip down memory lane and here are some photos taken on the Box Brownie. I was about three in the photos on the beach. I think it's amusing to see what my Dad wore on the beach - a jacket and with his trousers rolled up for paddling.

I'm perhaps a bit older in the photo with my Mum, looking at lots of sandpies. We used to go to New Brighton in the summer, so I think these photos were taken there.



Here I am in the garden at home looking very fed up at having to pose in front of the raspberry bushes for the photo. The last photo is of me and my Taid (Welsh for grandfather) - my mum's dad. Granny and Taid came to live with us when I was 6.





5 comments:

Kay said...

What sweet pictures! You do look a little fed up in the raspberry one. Thanks for sharing this very interesting info about Lewis Carroll and also letting us see you with your family. Too cute!

Nicola said...

Very interesting post! And I loved looking at your family photos, there is something so special about old b/w photos.

danielle said...

Photography was a very different process back then, wasn't it! I've seen his photos of the Lidells, but I hate to admit I have not read the Alice books. I might have read some little adaptation as a child, as I know the stories, but I really should read them now properly. The book sounds fascinating by the way.

Nan - said...

Oh, I loved this! How did you get the photos on your blog? They look so good. I liked reading about Lewis Carroll and his photography. Just so interesting. Geez, it wasn't so long ago, I was sending my film away and waiting what seemed like forever to get the pictures back.

BooksPlease said...

Thanks everyone for your comments.

Kay, I've never really liked having my photo taken and sometimes it shows!

Nicola, thanks for visiting, I think b/w photos are great, but I would have liked colour ones.

Danielle do read Alice, although my favourite is Through the Looking Glass.

Nan, I scanned the photos and saved them for use as web pictures. Technology is wonderful, not only instant photos now but instant copying and publishing too!