Photography on the Move
London: Reaktion Books, 2015
Hardback. 288 pp. 90 illustrations, 55 in colour. ISBN 978-1780235196. £25.00
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière–Lyon 2
To be precise, this is not a book about Lewis Carroll’s photography, but rather about Lewis Carroll and photography: the subject is not only Carroll the photographer, but also the avid collector and consumer of amateur or professional photographs. Dodgson cherished those material objects which “reveal a great deal about the aesthetic, technological and conceptual capabilities of the medium that absorbed him” . As opposed to the prevalent vision, according to which Carroll lost interest in photography after 1880, this book shows that he was still very much involved in the purchasing and supervising of photographic pictures during the last two decades of his life: even though he did give up photography as an active personal practice, there were still “various other ways in which he invested the photographic medium” .
Lindsay Smith has long been working about Victorian poetry, art and photography. She is Professor of English at the University of Sussex, where she is also the co-director of the Centre for the Visual. Her new book shows her to be extremely competent about the social context of nineteenth-century Britain, in fields of expertise as diverse as popular entertainment, seaside bathing or speech therapy (just one misprint, about the Arabian Nights, whose French translator and adaptor was not named “Gallard”  but Galland). All her arguments are based on close readings of Carroll’s letters and diaries – those which have survived, at least – and a detailed knowledge of Dodgson’s public and private life. All of which goes to say that one should not expect any of the wild vagaries which Lewis Carroll has sometimes inspired. True, Smith does resort to phrases like “it is difficult not to”  when she thinks the bundle of evidence is strong enough to allow her to formulate some more daring hypotheses, but after all, her book makes no claim to being a biography; she tries to make sense of what Carroll produced and collected, which means that she obviously has to interpret things. And most of what she says is quite convincing.
The introduction explains the choice of the title: “changing hands through the post, photographs were frequently on the move” . Lindsay Smith then extends the notion to Dodgson’s travels, abroad or within his native country; she also justifies Carroll’s interest for the theatre by considering spectacles as “moving pictures”, echoing his desire to capture movement in photography.
The first chapter focuses on the status of childhood in the Victorian age, an era which was characterised by the “fantasy of girlhood” studied by authors like Catherine Robson, but also by a heated debate about the “age of consent”. Photographs of children mixed past and future, temporal fluctuation being inscribed in images; photographic permanence made it possible to eternalise transitory states of being. By taking pictures of children, Carroll “was not simply interested in reclaiming via the image a fleeting past but also in anticipating, and thereby inhabiting in advance, an uncertain future” .
Train stations provided Dodgson with opportunities to meet new child-friends, and “the rail journey approached the performative freedom of a photographic sitting” . Travelling by train was a way to satisfy his “compulsion”  or “impulse”  to acquire likenesses of children. Carroll would take the train to go to London whenever he wanted to attend a play, an opera, etc. Lindsay Smith focuses on two kinds of show: child acrobats (including the ambiguous Miss Lulu, who later turned out to be a boy, and Connie Gilchrist, whose portrait was painted by Whistler) and child actors, like the “Living Miniatures”. This is the occasion for a reflexion on the relation between child performers and mechanical toys, lay figures and dolls. Disguise is another prominent topic: “[Dodgson’s] fondness for attending the same production several times [...] migrated to his photographic practice in which he liked to take different children in the same costume” .
The use of (pseudo-)ethnic costumes was precisely one of the consequences of Carroll’s only trip abroad, his journey to Russia in the summer 1867. His camera had been left at home, but he spent most of his time looking for images to buy, and Smith asserts that his work after 1867 reflects “the rich visual experience of religious icon and secular photographic ‘type’” . Some of his portraits of Xie Kitchin, the Hatch sisters or Rose Laurie do remind the viewer of the cartes de visite representing “Russian types” one could buy in Moscow or St Petersburg at the time. The devotion of Russian believers in front of Orthodox icons may also have reminded Dodgson of his own affective investment in relation with portraits of children.
Hastings was the town where, starting from 1857, just one year after he bought his own camera, Dogson went regularly to try and cure his language impediment. Puzzling out the links between photography, which silences the speaking subject, and the speechlessness experienced by stammerers, Lindsay Smith suggests an analogy which may seem a bit far-fetched: “The act of stammering, like that of photographing, is then to anticipate, in the present, future hesitation as having already occurred” . Another seaside resort, Eastbourne, was where Carroll spent all his summer holidays between 1877 and 1898. The notion of the beach as “a ‘theatrical’ space of sorts”  conveys a vague hint of Dodgson watching children playing by the sea a bit like Aschenbach looking at Tadzio and his friends on the Lido beach. In the Postscript, photography and letter-writing are associated with the Freudian fort/da: “it is not only photographs that stage loss and return [...] a photograph of a child both rehearses her absence and restores the child to him” .
>> Illustrated version on the Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/photos/carroll/smith.html
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