Lewis Carroll, Amateur
by David L. Jacobs
The word "amateur" evokes distinctly negative images: painters who glory in fields of bluebonnets, photographers whoget off on New England barns and otherwise sane individuals who warble their way through Gilbert and Sullivan. Amateurs lack competence, if not commitment. They are untalented, unfinished and naive. Professionals, on the other hand, have mastered the technical aspects of their art. They are serious practitioners who perform — rain or shine — and get paid for it.
The word "amateur" comes from a Latin word meaning lover, and it is that sense which dominated the mid-nineteenth century notion of amateurism — a notion which was entirely free of our modern negative connotations. Many of photography's inventors — Wedgewood, Talbot and Herschel, among others — were well-rounded gentlemen of the industrial revolution who pursued numerous pursuits out of love and a sense of duty. They were enthusiasts from start to finish: amateurs who loved the medium they helped to create.
Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, in many ways was the epitome of the Victorian amateur. Carroll brought energy and intelligence to a broad range of interests. He was an Oxford don who taught mathematics and logic. He was deeply involved in the theater, as well as various sciences and medicine. He wrote political tracts. He was an ordained deacon in the church, and, of course, he was the author of the Alice books. He also found time, as did many of his peers, to write voluminous correspondence — nearly 100,000 recorded letters in the last 35 years of his life.
In addition, Lewis Carroll took up photography in 1856, in his mid-twenties, and he continued to photograph for the next 25 years. He publicly exhibited his images only once, in 1858. As an amateur he felt little need for a wide audience, much less widespread acclaim. At the same time, he held very high technical standards, as reflected both in the brilliance of his prints, and the polite disdain he felt for Julia Margaret Cameron's soft, unfocused pictures. Carroll was not into photography for money, glory or fame but rather for the love of working with the medium, and the simple pleasures he took in making pictures of family and friends.
Reflections in a Looking Glass is a handsome production. The reproductions capture the subtle tonalities of the originalprints, the hand-colored photographs and Carroll's whimsical sketches. Beyond the lavish plates, the book is noteworthy forallowing Carroll to speak in his own voice. Two of his best known writings on photography — Hiawatha Photographing and A Photographer's Day Out— are reprinted in their hilarious entirety. There are also well-chosen quotes from Carroll's lettersand other writings that suggest the range of Carroll's inquisitive mind as well as the spirit of his times. Carroll's images have been difficult to find for many years, so Reflections, with its gorgeous reproductions, is most welcome.
If there is one disappointment in this book, it is Morton N. Cohen's biographical sketch of Carroll. Cohen's essay is well-written and informative on many aspects of Carroll's life and diverse interests. Like many biographers, however, Cohen is in the thrall of his subject, and he comes across as a die-hard Carroll defender. This is especially evident when Cohen turns to the topic of Carroll's photographs of and relationships with pre-pubescent girls and again when Cohen raises the issue of whether Carroll's photographs would be of interest to us had they not been made by the author of the Alice books. In both cases Cohen's arguments are abbreviated, glib and unpersuasive.
Despite their occasional stiffness, Carroll's photographs are intimate images of subjects that were close at hand. In thisrespect Carroll resembles many loth century snapshooters, for whom the subjects of the pictures — friends, family, acquaintances — also serve as the primary viewers of the finished work. The photographer, the subjects, and the audience are privy to the relationships and circumstances that lie behind the pictures. They know, in other words, the contexts — personal and photographic — out of which the pictures originated, and this knowledge allows these viewers to animate the images in unique ways.
It is for these reasons, in part, that many of Carroll's photographs seem like inside jokes that only Carroll, those younggirls, those heavily bearded gentlemen and those elaborately coifed women might have fully comprehended. We, on theother hand, might appreciate the surfaces of the pictures but can only guess at what was really going on. Looking throughCarroll's photographs is not unlike coming across an old family album at a flea market. We look at pictures that were made by and for people who are irretrievably lost in the past. It is likely that no-one alive knows or cares who they were — otherwise, how could these once-treasured albums end up in a place like this, open to the scrutiny of strangers, with a price tag stuck on the inside cover? There is pathos in Carroll's images and in many family albums as well: a pathos born of lost contexts, and of what they portend for us and those images we hold closest to the breast.
David L. Jacobs is a professor