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.