Friday, September 9th, 2011
Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), Oxford lecturer and mathematician, was a shy, stuttering and half-deaf amateur photographer at the historic point where Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype (very late 1830s) and William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype (early 1840s) developing processes were being pushed aside by Frederick Scott Archer’s wet-plate collodian process (1850s). Where daguerreotype provided the photographer with a clear one-off image the calotype offered the ability to reproduce multiple images. but it lacked the crispness of its alternative. Wet-plate collodian brought photography to the masses and “democratized (sic) Victorian photography” by providing an ability to shoot crisp and clear images that could be printed multiple times.
In 1856, Dodgson, better known to the modern world by his pen name Lewis Carroll, purchased a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding Camera in London. He went on to become a portrait photographer of some note and a small number of those portraits included the girl who inspired his classic work ‘Alice in Wonderland’. This book isn’t about Lewis Carroll the writer; it is about one of a small series of photographs of Alice Lidell. That Alice.
Simon Winchester has taken the famous photographic portrait of six-year-old Alice Liddell as the beggar maid and reconstructed around it a world context. The Alice Behind Wonderland brings Charles Dodgson back to life with fine details about his human relationships and motivations. But you should be aware this isn’t a doting look at Lewis Carroll or his book. In essence, this is a book about photography and Dodgson as a photographer.
If you are interested in the history of photography – or extremely well written history of the era – it’s going to provide you with 100 pages of insight. You’ll have more understanding and appreciation of Alice in Wonderland but don’t for a second think this is a deconstruction of nuance and writing style. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one in small snippets as a coffee table book, much as its form factor appears to incite from the reader.