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.