Carroll the Photographer

Carroll referred to photography as devotion, entertainment, fascination, practice, chief interest, and his "one amusement." His long career as a photographer (1856-1880) coincides with the "Golden Era" of nineteenth-century photography, which centered on the wet collodion negative process and the corresponding positive albumen print process. These processes were complex and required considerable technical expertise, practice, patience and experience to master. The photographer was required to set up his camera and tripod and pose his subject. The next step involved coating and sensitizing a plate of glass in the darkroom (or, if in the field, in a portable darkroom tent), transporting the "wet plate" to the camera, and almost immediately making an exposure upon it. Finally, the plate was returned to the darkroom for rapid developing and fixing before it could dry.

Lewis Carroll's brother posing with a variety of fishing gear.

Skeffington Hume Dodgson with
fishing gear, August 1856.
Skeffington, the second Dodgson
son, was photographed while he
and Carroll were on holiday in
the Lake District.

Carroll favored the albumen print almost exclusively, like most photographers of his day. Utilizing a binding solution of processed egg whites to hold light-sensitive silver salts onto the coated surface of a thin sheet of paper, the albumen process allowed the wet collodion negatives, once they had been fixed and dried, to be placed in contact with the sensitized paper surface and printed. The resulting prints typically had a lustrous surface and a broad tonal range. Carroll's surviving glass negatives and paper prints within the Ransom Center collections display a mastery of the technique which only a devoted practitioner could accomplish. They were the product of his own special looking-glass: the camera.

Dog sitting next to a wooden fence with a rifle leaning against it.

Dido, a dog belonging to Carroll’s
brother Wilfred Dodgson, ca 1857.

Carroll was pleased when a child chose to mount a portrait by him and once noted proudly that Tennyson had his photos hanging "on the line." But the only professional exhibition which contained his work was one sponsored by the Photographic Society of London in 1858. It was the photographic album which became Carroll's chosen medium for saving and presenting his photographs. As he traveled about with his camera gear he was able to collect the autographs of his sitters and show them how their pictures would fit into his album. The selections here are taken from the five Carroll albums held by the Ransom Center.

Two of Lewis Carroll's aunts playing chess on a small table.

Margaret Anne and Henrietta Mary Lutwidge, ca 1859.
Carroll photographed two of his maternal aunts in an
early, classical photographic motif - the chess game.

Three young girls sitting on the ground.

Mary and Charlotte Webster and Margaret Gatey, ca 1857.


Photographs of Children

Young girl climing a ladder.

Dymphna Ellis, 25 July 1865. His subject
later recalled that Carroll "came to
our country house to photograph the children
I feel sure I was a 'favourite.'He made every
child that. He developed the photographs
in our cellar... I remember the mess and
the mystery... We cried when he went away
We were absolutely fearless with him. We
felt he was one of us, and on our side
against all the grown-ups."

In an 1877 letter, Carroll tells his correspondent that he considers himself "an amateur-photographer whose special line is 'children'." He then encourages the recipient to bring the children by to meet him "not [to] be photographed then and there (I never succeed with strangers), but to make acquaintance with the place and the artist, and to see how they relished the idea of coming, another day, to be photographed."

Carroll's photographic style evolved from the straightforward work of his early family albums into a more adventurous and interpretive one. In an almost magical fashion, Carroll's photography allowed the natural child and the fanciful artist to combine in the production of memorable images. In fact, Carroll has left us with some of the most profound portraits of children ever created.

Four costumed children acting out the story of St. George and the Dragon

"St. George and the Dragon," 1875. The
composition features Xie Kitchin and her three
brothers, George Herbert Kitchin, Hugh Bridges
Kitchin and Brook Taylor Kitchin. Alexandra (Xie)
Rhoda Kitchin was the daughter of the Rev.
George William Kitchin, Dean of Winchester and
later of Durham. Dodgson began photographing
Xie (pronounced "Ecksy") in 1868 and continued
to use her as a frequent subject throughout the final
years of his photographic career. He considered her
to be one of his most amenable and striking models
and recalled in an 1885 letter how he had
"photographed her nearly 50 times: from 4 years
old upwards."

A mother sitting with her children.

Tryphena Hughes and three of her children:
Arthur Jr., Amy and Agnes, 19 July 1864. This
grouping of the family of Arthur Hughes includes
a number of volumes that are most likely some of
Carroll's photographic albums.

Young girl sitting outside and holding a plant.

Maria White, 11 July 1864. Not all of Carroll's
subjects came from his social class. Maria was
the niece of the porter at Tom Quad Gate, Christ
Church, Oxford, and "sat capitally."

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