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.