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42 Seconds Under Ground: The Photography of Lewis Carroll

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Review of two books on Lewis Carroll, by Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

Lewis Carroll, Photographer The Princeton University Library Albums by Roger Taylor and Edward Wakeling (Princeton University Press
Dreaming in Pictures: the Photography of Lewis Carroll By Douglas R. Nickel Yale University Press,

When his mother’s brother, Skeffington Lutwidge, first introduced Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (more popularly known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, originally Alice’s Adventures Underground to photography in 1856, it was considered no more than “a fashionable pastime that allowed gentlemen to demonstrate their interest in technology, chemistry, and optics, as well as to reveal their artistic tendencies.” (11, Princeton).

More than his uncle, it was Reginald Southey, Dodgson’s friend at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a “master and tutor,” a mathematics don, who really got Dodgson started, showing him his own work (much admired by Dodgson), and mixing his first batch of developing chemicals. It was also Southey who accompanied Dodgson to the Deanery “to try to take a photograph” of the Liddell family, as the fledgling photographer noted in his diary on April 25, 1856. The following year, Dodgson went with his friend to London where he bought a very fine and expensive rosewood camera, beginning a pastime that would bring him some of the greatest joys and pains of Dodgson’s life.

Ever conscious of social standing and stature, Dodgson soon realized that the camera could be used in myriad ways, one of which was as an entrée to other Oxford dons, celebrities, admired poets (such as Tennyson, Arthur Hughes, and Rossetti), and royalty who often visited the esteemed Oxford campus. Born into a family that was considered of “good social standing,” Dodgson had aspirations toward society’s higher strata, and he “used photography to negotiate from one level to another.” (viii, Princeton). Still, if this had been all there was to it, Dodgson’s photographs would not have the resonance they have today. While he initially may have taken to photography as a fashionable pastime or social calling card, the photographs themselves give evidence of deeper desires.
Dodgson first used his new camera to gain introduction to the respected Oxford dean Harry Liddell, a progressive man who “would have taken an interest in an innovation like photography.” (15, Dreaming)

But his priorities soon changed, and before long his lens focused not on the dean but on his young daughters, particularly little Alice. Soon after, at the age of five, Alice became the subject of several photographic studies, one of which, Alice Liddell as “The Beggar-Maid”, is so widely known, that it is now etched into the collective consciousness. So began a relationship that would be forever memorialized – not only in pictures, of course, but also in words.

It was on July 4, 1862, that the Reverend Dodgson, his friend Robinson Duckworth, and the Liddell sisters took to a boat on the river Isis at Oxford and rowed past the scented rushes to the town of Guildford. As they picnicked beneath the shade of a tree on the banks of the river, Dodgson began telling the story of “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” which three years later would be published as Alice in Wonderland.

The book remains among the most widely translated and profitable works of children’s literature, with sales so strong that Dodgson began the sequel, Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1872), several months later. It was the beginning of an unexpected career, and Dodgson went on to publish other highly successful stories under the name Lewis Carroll, including The Hunting of the Snark, Phantasmagoria, Sylvie and Bruno, and numerous poems, riddles, and puns.

Because he was a respected mathematician and Oxford don who wrote other, far more serious books, Dodgson created a pen-name, Lewis Carroll, to mask the identity of these whimsical works. Dodgson invented a name for Most writers agree, and it recorded in Dodgson’s letters and diaries, that he chose the name by latinizing his mother’s maiden name, Lutwidge and his own first name, then retranslating the words back into English. So far, scholars and writers have stopped at that, seeing no more in the name other than the explanation provided by Dodgson himself. But Dodgson’s love of riddles, tricks, and code, the name warrants fresh consideration. Studying it as an anagram, one can puzzle out the letters; from Lewis Carroll, hidden are the words “Alice Rows R. L”.

Whether or not Dodgson intended this, or even that he was aware of the words hidden within the name we can never know with certainty. That said, what is known is that he enjoyed rowing with Alice and that several times she and her sisters tried their own hands at the oar. The “R.L.” would stand for Reverend Lutwidge, and Dodgson, who lost his mother during his first term at Oxford, would perhaps honor his mother by using her maiden name. In fact, The Reverend Charles L. Dodgson rarely signed his name without his middle initial, the name, Lutwidge. Perhaps “Lewis Carroll” is more than a simple latinization, but also a riddle, an anagram that he hoped we would one day stumble upon. One can never know with certainty, but the fact that the words are there would surely have delighted him.

As for Alice Liddell herself, she is known to generations of readers as the heroine of Wonderland, to those interested in photography, and has been used repeatedly as evidence of Dodgson’s “unnatural” interest in little girls, a subject of endless speculation and analysis that continues even today. Adding to the mystery is the fact that there are gaps in Dodgson’s diaries, entire years destroyed by his family upon his death. It is known that for about five months shortly after the Guildford trip, relations between the Liddells and Dodgson cooled considerably, and when relations resumed, Dodgson held himself “aloof.”

We can never know what caused the rift, though it has been the subject of much speculation and many writer’s have joined the rumor mill, keeping the story alive, using each other’s work to support their theories; so quick to jump to conclusions, that one begins to think that even if nothing perverse happened, they almost wish it had. A sort of vicarious thrill. Because several years of Dodgson’s diaries were destroyed, some assume that there must have been something to hide, some transgression or sin. Many write with authority (though in truth there is really no evidence to support these theories) that Dodgson overstepped his bounds with Alice when she was about eleven.

Florence Becker Lennon, in her 1945 book Victoria Through the Looking Glass, proclaimed that “Carroll was actually in love with [Alice Liddell] and proposed honorable marriage.” (24, dreaming) Another chronicler, Alexander Taylor, wrote that Dodgson was “in love with his heroine,” and that “as she grew up” she became “the real disappointment in his life.” (25, dreaming) Even Morton Cohen, considered Carroll’s most authoritative biographer, offers, in Nickel’s words, only “gossip, elliptical correspondence, and the existence of other ‘May-December’ marriages” – something not uncommon in the Victorian period – as further evidence of Dodgson’s infatuation. (25, dreaming)
When we cut through the guess-work, the real facts, found in the surviving diaries, it is clear that Dodgson did not always think very well of Alice: Thus, it is equally plausible that the missing pages said angry or unflattering things about her, which the Dodgson family destroyed not only to protect his character, but to spare the Liddells’ (and her married name, Hargreaves’) feelings as well. Whatever the case, it is important to note that while Alice was the inspiration for the books, contrary to popular belief she was by no means his favorite photographic model.

That distinction, by Dodgson’s own admission, belonged to Alexandra (“Xie”) Kitchin, whom he photographed for a period of eleven years and sitting for him for at least fifty times that we know of, a longer relationship and more intense study than he had made of any other child. The photographs of Xie are among the most captivating Dodgson ever produced, not only because of Xie’s natural and haunting beauty, but also because she is often used to convey Dodgson’s fascination with altered states of consciousness. Xie appears in photographs in various stages of consciousness. She is reclining in her nightdress, dozing sleepily on the couch, other times, a wide-eyed insomniac.

Several photographs of Xie are titled “Sleepless” and “A Summer Night.” Whatever the post, Xie demonstrates a remarkable ease in front of the camera and with the photographer. Her gaze is direct, questioning, even, dare we say, provocative. Of the many portraits Dodgson took in his lifetime, practically the only close-ups are of Xie, her face and neck flooding the frame. If he wanted to get close to anyone, it was the dreamy and hypnotic Xie Kitchin. ‘

In Lewis Carroll, Photographer: The Princeton University Library Albums, Roger Taylor and Edward Wakeling have compiled, for the first time, an invaluable accounting of Dodgson’s work as a photographer. Wakeling, a British Carroll scholar and former chairman of the Lewis Carroll Society, has prepared an illustrated catalogue of the entire Princeton collection, with detailed captions and historical facts, including Dodgson’s own captions. Dodgson himself did not begin to log his photographs or number them until 1875, by which time he had given up photography, and so his numbering system is a retrospective one. Once started, however, he went at it with conviction, devoting weeks of his life and up to ten hours per day to “photo writing.” It seems that he worked backward, beginning with the most recent pictures he had taken, estimating the range to be “2400 prints taken up to this time” (Wakeling estimates more like three thousand, roughly one-third of which survives today). Unfortunately, Dodgson’s register has been lost, and it is perhaps Wakeling’s invaluable contribution to have recatalogued and annotated the entire opus from scratch.

Lewis Carroll: Photographer presents, alongside complete reproductions of the four albums in the Princeton University Library, a comprehensive list of all of Dodgson’s works, including date, location, and subject.

Dodgson often illustrated his albums with other types of art – drawings and sketches – juxtaposing images with poetry. Sometimes the verse was of his own creation, sometimes it was borrowed from others whose work he admired, including Edward Lear, Longfellow, and Tennyson. One particularly brilliant touch was that he often invited the children to sign their name at the bottom of the print. Often in colored ink, usually violet, the childish scribble further enlivens the photograph. The awkward, beautiful handwriting of children that speaks of innocence and character, their struggle to sign as grown-ups, yet not quite making the mark.

Portraits of young girls do not make up the entirety of Dodgson’s work, of course. As both Lewis Carroll: Photographer and Douglas R. Nickel’s Dreaming in Pictures make clear, his sitters also included such notables as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Quentin Twiss, The Earl of Enniskillen, many Oxford dons and celebrities, and a smattering of local clergy and nobility. There are also portraits of his family members and the occasional landscape or object (in particular and anatomical skeletons from the museum at Christ Church). At the same time, the photographs of young girls comprise over fifty percent of his total output, and, more to the point, they represent the “child-friends,” subjects who mattered most to the photographer himself. They are also the images by which Dodgson’s photographic work is known to most of us, and by which he has been favorably – and unfavorably – judged.

Dreaming in Pictures presents a different selection of Dodgson’s work, and includes valuable, sharp new insights about his technique, introduction to photography, and what it meant to him. More importantly, perhaps, Nickel tackles the thornier issues surrounding the work: the gossip, the rumors of perversion and transgression, and the many books that neatly cast Dodgson into a Freudian template. Almost without fail, these speculative diagnoses trace their genesis to a young, German student, Anthony Goldschmidt. In his 1933 paper “Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed,” Goldschmidt noted “incidents and images [that] seem not only subconscious in nature, but also erotic.” (26, dreaming).The paper has since become a springboard, used repeatedly for misinterpretation by many. The picture that emerges is one of a lunatic obsessed with little girls, a social misfit, a pervert, a split personality, and a man who never grew up.

Dodgson’s photographs and the Alice books are taken as further “evidence” of his pathology. These theories, whispered as rumors and gossip during his own lifetime, furthered by Goldschmidt and his followers, have persisted to the present day. Even the discerning Nabokov, who took a keen interest in Dodgson’s, photographs (no surprise there), and remarked on his “scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-dressed…” He adds, “He got away with it…nympholepsy.” (11/Dreaming)

Victorian notions of childhood and the fact that they had a difficult time defining its parameters and the age of consent are important considerations that must be remembered if we are to have a true understanding of any art, including Dodgson’s, created during the era. To impose a contemporary understanding of childhood on these pictures would be a mistake. Childhood then was far more fleeting then than it is today, and it was not at all uncommon for children, especially of the lower classes, to begin work at age twelve, or even younger.

In the more comfortable classes, Victorian girls spent their days learning how to be “ladylike and proper,” how to sew and do other handicrafts, from the family nurse or nanny (in the Liddells’ case, the nanny was a certain Miss Pritchett, whom many believe is represented by the strict Red Queen in the Alice books). They were expected to be “properly” dressed in layers of confining, itchy petticoats and white summer frocks, clearly not intended for frolicking in the grass. Never mind that in “polite” society, children did not remove their stockings and shoes. Had these children ever had the pleasure of feeling the morning dew on the grass underfoot? Consider how revolutionary it must have been, how controversial, that so many of Dodgson’s children appear barefoot in photographs, something that was simply not done in their milieu. One of the most valuable contributions made by both of these new books is that they tell how the rumors about Dodgson began. They unravel the mystery, present the pictures in their completeness, allowing us to view them from a fresh perspective, free (or at least aware) of the particular interpretation that has weighed so heavily on them.

It is widely known that the Victorians were preoccupied with mythologizng children, rendering them as innocent water nymphs, frolicking jollily along the shoreline, floating in the air as cherubs, or even as full-breasted women strangely lacking in pubic hair. In this Cult of the Child, children (and women, for that matter) were sexless, yet suggestive. Their sexuality was decorated with the props of innocence, flowers and wings, halos and purifying baths, promoting, as Bram Dijkstra put it, “a genre of child pornography that disguised itself as a tribute to the ideal of innocence.” (195, Idols of Perversity) Children were presented provocatively, but in a form that was acceptable. Still, if you strip away the props and the pretense cfrom these airbrushed and dilute images, a more perverse, more fetishistic rendering is revealed.

It is interesting to compare Dodgson’s photographs with the nude children taken by contemporaries like Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Gustave Rejlander, who, while they did not fully escape judgement, somehow managed to avoid the label of “pervert” that has landed squarely on Dodgson’s soldiers. Or, for that matter, with the paintings of William Stephen Coleman (whose children, Roger Taylor notes, were “happy to be naked in the perpetual sunlight of his imagination”), Paul Chabas, Paul Peele, Leon Frederic, and others. It was not the nudity or the age that offended: naked children were, in fact, “a favorite subject matter” (104, Princeton) in popular art at the time. Moreover, Dodgson photographed relatively few nude studies: “eight sessions spread over thirteen years involving the children of six families.” (107, Princeton)

The fact is, it is not merely the nudes that come into question; but all of Dodgson’s pictures of little girls and, beyond that, his relationships with his “child-friends” in general. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder why he has become the focal point of so much prurient speculation. In a letter to one of the sitter’s parents, Dodgson remarked, “If I did not believe I could take such pictures without any lower motive than a love of pure Art, I would not ask it.” (109, Princeton) Only four of these nude studies survive today, and they are heavily hand-colored, barely discernable as photographs. Dodgson took special precautions to destroy copy prints and negatives of these studies, which were always taken with the parents’ full knowledge and consent. He was all too aware of the climate in Victorian England, the zeal with which the Society for the Suppression of Vice worked to search out and destroy cases of “indecent” photography and art, and to bring charges. The fact that the camera provided a more “clinical” picture than did paint made the matter of photography all the harder to define: at the time, many were still unsure whether photographs should be considered art at all.

One thing that becomes clear on examination is that there is a notable difference between how Dodgson’s children are presented and how children were depicted by other artists of the time. These children do not have wings or halos; they are not sentimentalized or safely desexualized. Rather, there is a wildness, a savagery about them that rings all too true, perhaps too disturbing to viewers, precisely because there are virtually no props and no backdrop, save for a simple cloth. There are no suggestive wings or halos to reassuringly convey purity and innocence. These children are shown as they are, simple and direct, staring candidly at the camera, clearly willing participants in the game. They wear their own clothes, often reclining on a couch, playing in the deanery garden or his grounds at Christ Church.

Which is not to say that Dodgson never staged a tableau, such as St. George and the Dragon, Little Red Riding Hood, or the famed images of Xie Kitchin as China Man and Penelope Bootheby and Alice Liddell as Beggar Girl. But this form of dress-up was not at all uncommon for the time (as it is still common today). And even when in costume, Dodgson’s children are not dressed up so as to be believable, as in Julia Margaret Cameron’s elaborate scenarios. Their props are far more whimsical, obvious and cheap, mere suggestions of a theme, perhaps no more than amusements to help pass the time in the studio. Dodgson does not insult our intelligence by assuming he needs to spell it out for us. As Nickel notes, this is something the Victorian viewer in particular would have appreciated, for it requires a level of sophistication beyond what is called for when viewing the work of his contemporaries. Dodgson give us a nudge and a wink, seeming to say, “I don’t need to spell it out for you; I know you get it.”
But it is especially when there are no props at all that one can see the unmarked freshness of children, not yet weary of the world. They seem strong, at times even dangerous.

These children are clearly comfortable with themselves, and neither they nor the photographer seem to care whether or not the viewer is comfortable, whether or not they are presented in a palatable way. They seem not to need us, perfectly capable in their element, threatening our very need to be protective and parenting. In Dodgson’s lens they are liberated from the social “shoulds” and “oughts,” free of the constraining Victorian mores and rules of conduct. They appear to be joining their grown-up friend in thumbing their noses at what is right and proper. Let them not grow up so fast, Dodgson seems to be saying. What a joy it must have been for both child and photographer to have those afternoons in the studio, when the rigid code of Victorian conduct did not apply and children were free to be children.

Moreover, it is not merely Dodgson creating the image. To deny that the sitter has anything to do with the resulting photograph is simply absurd, for the camera captures what is seen, what the sitter puts forth. Though he did sometimes pose his subjects, most seem to have an awareness and attitude all their own, and this is seen most clearly in the gaze of the sitter. What this gaze says is that children do feel pleasure, that they are aware of it, and this is frightening to us. Their “childishness” is apparent in their pose, as they make no move to cover themselves. In none of Dodgson’s surviving nude studies do the children seem embarrassed, nor in any of the other photographs in which they appear in various states of dress. It is the puritanical template that we overlay on these photographs: ah, but they should be embarrassed.

In our desire to protect our children, we deny what is natural, their innate sensuality (read; NOT child pornography, which i do not include as natural in this way. I speak here of the frankness that comes with innocence and youth). We neuter them, turn them into cherubs, fairies, saints, when in reality, children are wild, savage, and untamed, and it is this very thing that makes them wonderful.

It was not simply Dodgson’s pictures that fostered gossip: eccentric by any standard, the man himself was an easy target. A buttoned-up, rather unusual dresser even for Victorian times, Dodgson could be seen around Oxford, always with his top-hat, high-winged collar, black bow-tie, and always without an overcoat, no matter what the weather, his wavy dark hair long enough to touch his collar: though he had to adhere to the strict code of dress required at Christ Church, his was still a variation. He was unmarried and remained so for his entire life, having taken a vow of celibacy when he the articles at Christ Church. He suffered a bad stutter and was incredibly shy. He had been bullied when he attended school at Rugby as a child (which marked him for years, and is perhaps the reason he preferred little girls over little boys), and was devastated when his mother died a few days into his first term at Christ Church. Added to this was the fact that Dodgson suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, or TLE, a fact that was no doubt known by the cloistered Oxford community.

There were at least two doctors who diagnosed Dodgson’s epilepsy, both of whom are mentioned in his diary. During the Victorian era, this fact alone would have been enough to stigmatize him. That he then photographed children while making no effort to sanctify and purify them only added to the stigma.
Being born into a family of good social standing came with responsibility, one that young Charles was well aware of. In his early student years, he exhibited a brilliant mind and was considered a genius by many. He bore much responsibility during his childhood. Charles was highly creative, entertaining his siblings with family newsletters, complete with articles and illustration (all provided by him), and devising games, the favorite of which seems to be a train game, in which he served as stationmaster, and the train consisted of wheelbarrows tied together in which his siblings could ride, as Charles dictated all the rules and stops. Indeed, Charles spent his entire life seeing to his sibling’s education and livelihood. From an early age, it was expected that he would, like his father, become ordained in the Church of England. Charles kept up his end, earning an outstanding academic record and displaying a remarkable talent for mathematics. He became a mathematics lecturer at Oxford and later an ordained Deacon in the Church, a compromise from Rector — a decision one can only speculate he made for personal reasons that may have had to do with his stutter, perhaps with a desire to keep time for his other pursuits, and, possibly, with a fear of having epileptic seizures. In his diary he notes, “I really think sermons may have something to do with [the seizures], preparing them takes a good deal out of me.”

That Charles Dodgson, beloved Lewis Carroll, should have had epilepsy should come as no surprise when we consider the list of others who shared his malady, people like Edward Lear, Jonathan Swift, Vincent Van Gogh Napoleon, Saint Paul, Alexander the Great, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Joan of Arc. For Dodgson, seizures were a source of concern and some shame. In his diary, he records awaking one time on the cathedral floor, having been there for what must have been “exactly an hour.” He waited until the cathedral was empty, not wishing anyone to see the blood that had spilled as he hit his nose in the fall.

To understand his reticence, one must first understand the stigma that surrounded epilepsy and has throughout history, especially in Victorian times. The only known treatments at the time were bromide and potassium, both of which had very undesirable side effects. Epileptics were often social outcasts, regarded as idiots or perverts, still believed to be possessed by bad and unclean spirits, forever unmarryable, never fitting in, and often relegated to a mental institution.

Though in some cultures the epileptic is valued as a shaman or healer, there can be little doubt that Dodgson was aware of the prevailing attitude of his own milieu and felt like a social misfit, which helps explain why he would be more comfortable around children.

If more writers had viewed Dodgson and his work with due consideration to his epilepsy, perhaps an altogether different picture would have emerged from the overly Freudian interpretation of his books. Dodgson had what neurologists today call an inter-ictal personality, “one with certain characteristics such as emotionality, lowered sex drive, and obsessions” (98, epilepsy). Other well-documented characteristics common to those with TLE are hypergraphia, moral excess, hyper religiosity, and moments of ecstasy and transcendence as reported by Joan of Arc, the prophet Mohammed, and St. Paul. Fugue and aura states can be experienced alternately as dread or rapture. In such a world, it is not uncommon for things to change shape and size, for the floor to appear concave and fall out beneath you, for color to take on new dimensions. It is the world coming apart at the seams, a topsy-turvy place where the usual rules no longer apply and anything is possible. It is, in fact, a world much like Alice’s Wonderland, where everything is exactly the same as in this world but completely the opposite.

Despite rumor and gossip, Dodgson went on with the business of life, writing brilliant books on mathematics under his own name, unexpectedly becoming a highly celebrated children’s author, and achieving a fair amount of celebrity (some of which he tried to escape from: following the publication of the Alice books, he took great pains to dissociate himself from his creation Lewis Carroll). Out of all of this, it is clear that his greatest joy came from photography and his relationships with his subjects.

For the 42 seconds it took to expose the plate, he and the subject were free of the strict confines of Victorian society and he was, as he felt when with a child, in the presence of something sacred. As Morton Cohen notes, “He rejected outright the Calvinist principle of original sin and replaced it with the notion of inborn divinity.” (107, Cohen) Dodgson himself saw a “child nature,” something “Other”, and in whose company he saw “a spirit fresh from God’s hands, on whom no shadow of sin…has yet fallen.” (105, Cohen)

“We are but older children, dear, / who fear to find our bedtime near,” Lewis Carroll wrote in one of his poems — a phrasing that clearly suggests his own awareness of aging and mortality. Perhaps the fact that he had epileptic seizures emphasized the point all the more, for grand and petit mal are much like a little death, a loss of consciousness, a parting Should it be any surprise to us that he wished to remain in the nonjudgmental world of children, a world as yet unjaded by society, and through photography to “hold the little girl forever young in the looking glass”? (26, Pleasures Taken) One can hardly blame Dodgson, who had experienced so little freedom in his own childhood, for wanting to savor the moment, the “golden afternoon” that he saw in those early years. But the naturalness of his vision mocks us and makes us uncomfortable, and so we refuse to acknowledge what is before us, the sitter’s untamed energy, and instead cast blame on the photographer – the pervert who reveled in little girls. It is thus that we demonize Dodgson, ascribe motive where perhaps there is none.

What Dodgson really wanted was to stop time, and who wouldn’t? In the moments he spent with children, especially during the 42 seconds it took to expose the plate, when the sitter had to remain perfectly still, he was trying to freeze the very essence of childhood. For 42 seconds, time seemed suspended, and no doubt he did derive something from this. Was it something deviant? There is very little real evidence to suggest it. It is more likely that he wanted simply to preserve his contact with this fleeting and precious time, to live vicariously through his sitters. But his models grew up one after the other, and child-friends went on to marry and became part of the world of rules and regulations where the Red Queen reigned and where he was never comfortable. That he had to constantly find new subjects – a practical matter because children age – must have been a source of considerable grief for Dodgson. Their passing to adulthood, out of that beautiful light of the golden afternoon, must have felt to him as a death.

The truth is, we can never really know Dodgson’s inner thoughts, and if we are to guess and try to make sense of the man who was and is such an enigma, then not only he, but we, would be better served by using the information that we do possess. The fact that he had epilepsy, for instance, though ignored by many of his commentators, is hardly small or insignificant. In many ways Dodgson was the model of an epileptic genius who, through his writing and his photographs, sought to show us something of his world – a world sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrifying, but the world as he saw it. Perhaps, after all is said and done, he achieved what he wrote about so long ago, to invent a “memory camera” that could capture all the thoughts inside a man’s head and translate them into negatives, photographs for all the world to see and wonder about. Perhaps that is what he was after when he took so many portraits of his sleeping, unconscious, un-self-conscious children: to photograph the unphotographable world of the mind.

— Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • yes, i’ve heard of alice in wonderland syndrome. i believe it’s called that becaus eof the macropsia and micropsia, that are common to many temporal lobe seizures. the sense of time, things growing and shrinking, even the headaches, as you noted, the listmaking, the compulsive hypergraphia, etc etc. are all signs.

    Dodgson WAS officially diagnosed in his life several times as someone with temporal lobe epilepsy and had several grand mal seizures that are well-documented, themost famous of them being the one at the chapel at Christ Church where he was teaching. He was on several medications for seizures though none of them agreeable. He also had the classic migraine symptoms that often accompany TLE and took Dilaudid and other opiates for this.

    His friend Tennyson was also diagnosed with epilepsy and took treatment for it, though he was very private about it.

    this is understandable; at the time, epileptics were considered ‘insane’ or ‘mad’ and were often confined to asylums. sad, when i know that in other cultures, epileptics are often revered as shamans and medicine men (inuit and native american cultures often do this).

    What would be best would be for those with epilepsy to be treated just like everyone else, or for society to recognize the many good qualities that often accompany TLE and the many great men and women who have been the best leaders, artists, writers, etc. who all had well-documented cases – a few, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, Napoleon, Julius Ceasar, Alexander the Great, Alfred Nobel, Socrates, Aristotle, Pythagorus, Lewis Carroll (of course), Tennyson, as noted, and on and on… i’m compiling a master list of document cases only that i hope to soon have on my site.

    Be well, and thanks for reading…


  • Excellent work, enjoyed exploring the essay.

    Interestingly, Dodgson’s epilepsy is, of course, a matter of some dispute. The fact that he tended towards neologisms, clang assosications and listmaking, indicates bipolar disorder rather than/in addition to temporal absence epilepsy.

    While looking up Dodgson’s epilepsy, I happened across this interesting medical diagnosis, termed Alice In Wonderland Syndrome.

  • here is the link on my site to Dodgson’s photographs. i’ve uploaded quite a good sample, but no doubt, this will increase over time….


    cut and paste that into your browser, OR,

    go to
    http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com and go to IMAGES and then select the gallery marked Lewis Carroll nee Charles Dodgson.

    Hope this helps and good luck…



  • i can organize some pics online for you to look at. give me a few days and i’ll post the link and you can go to it. be sure to check back. i’ll try and get it done before the end of the day on monday and will post the link back here.

    be well,


  • m

    a pity there is no posting of his pictures

  • This is a fascinating essay, especially the part about the epilepsy (which I’d never heard of).

    It’s interesting to contemplate how our view of photographs differ from other generations. The generational difference is seen today by how nonchalantly teenagers take photos of themselves and friends without inhibition (and how in contrast, a middle aged man or woman grumpily declines).

    The novelty of the device in Dodgson’s time probably ensured that neither parents nor children thought too hard about issues of exploitation. It also ensured that poses were more spontaneous (contrast this with Americans who see glamour shots of all kinds of models everyday and everywhere).

    Aside from the pseudo-prurience of these photos, it would be interesting to view these photos as indicating what people of that time period considered as tableux. In that time, the cliches were cherubs; in the time of playboy pinups, the cliches were water hoses and horses and automobiles. Future historians will find the setups more fascinating that the models themselves.

  • I also have found Lewis Carroll’s writings exceptional.

    I wasn’t aware of his suffering from epilepsy and stuttered. I think this goes a long way to explaining his love of photography and his preference for the company of children.

    I also prefer not to think of him as a creepy pedophile although there are some more modern “art photographers” that I would consider coming under that category.

    Thanks for the book reviews.

  • Eric Olsen

    exceptional and infomative – I love your theory on stopping time

  • srp

    agreed. it is sad. I don’t judge him that way myself, and i hope that is clear in the piece. It would indeed be sad if he were judged so. I’d like to think that as biographers, we really do our research before condemning anyone to something as serious as that… Let’s hope so.

    Be well


  • Charles Dodgeson is a phenomenal genius. I regard the Alice books as my favorite ever written, and I have a literature degree to back that up. It’s unfortunate that history will probably judge him as a creepy pedophile. He was a mathmatic genius, and several of the passages in the second book (through the looking glass) are actually working puzzles.

    The first piece of music I wrote I put to Charles Dodgeson words (I think it was Shadowland).

    take care,