The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators.
This he perched upon a tripod—
Crouched beneath its dusky cover—
Stretched his hand enforcing silence—
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
—from Lewis Carroll, “Hiawatha’s Photographing”
The image etched into the Harry Ransom Center’s windows of a wooden camera with a photographer crouching behind, hand outstretched, is an illustration by Arthur B. Frost for the poem “Hiawatha’s Photographing” by Lewis Carroll. The poem parodies Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855), an epic ballad that became popular despite its awkward meter that was often mocked. Although the protagonist in Longfellow’s poem is based on a Native-American hero, Carroll’s Hiawatha is a photographer who arrives at a family’s home and attempts to take each relative’s portrait, yet continually fails because the sitters move too soon and pose too strangely. Hiawatha finally manages to tumble “all the tribe together” and create a photograph in which “the faces all succeed.” But the family members then criticize the image as “the worst and ugliest picture / They could possibly have dreamed of,” and assert that “Really any one would take us / (Any one that did not know us) / For the most unpleasant people!” Carroll satirizes not just vanity in this poem but also the Victorian fad for families to have their pictures taken while adopting poses of affected elegance. Though “Hiawatha’s Photographing” appeared in the magazine Train in about 1857, this illustration did not accompany the poem until its publication within Carroll’s 1883 anthology Rhyme? And Reason?, to which Arthur B. Frost contributed 65 illustrations.
Although Carroll is well known as the author of the beloved Alice books, he was also an accomplished mathematician, logician, and photographer. He was born in Daresbury, Cheshire, England, in 1832, and given the name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He later chose the pen name Lewis Carroll to separate his academic life from his career publishing comedic poetry and nonsense writings. As a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford, between 1855 and 1881, Carroll published reputable works on mathematics and logic, many of which are still valued by scholars today. During the summer of 1856, Carroll adopted the then-burgeoning practice of photography as a hobby. He purchased an Otterwill folding camera, much like the one pictured in the illustration, which used the collodion-plate process and required finesse in timing and technique to produce a successful picture. Although this technique was difficult to master, Carroll produced more than 80 successful albumen-print photographs during his first summer, primarily portraits of his family. With the camera, Carroll had found a real-life “looking glass.” Inspired by Oscar Gustave Rejlander—the first photographer to create art photos comparable to paintings—Carroll settled on the genre of child portraiture. His most frequent subjects were his “child-friends,” many of whom were the daughters of his Oxford colleagues. The most notable of these children were Alice Liddell, who inspired the stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin, Carroll’s favorite subject, of whom he created about 50 photographs that spanned her childhood. Carroll carefully organized his photographs into albums to be given as gifts, which he kept within his own personal collection, and as portfolios to display to potential sitters. Although Carroll assembled at least 34 of these albums in his lifetime, only a third of these are known to exist today. Because of Carroll’s gift for putting his subjects at ease, he was able to capture youthful innocence with contented expressions not previously achieved. Biographer Morton N. Cohen claims that “his studies of children reached the apex of the genre in the earliest days of photography and retain their authority today.”
The Ransom Center holds a large collection of Carroll’s photography, with five complete albums and more than 380 photographs. One album, labeled nonchronologically as “Album A (VI),” is believed to contain Carroll’s earliest photographs. Peter C. Bunnell, in his introduction to the book Lewis Carroll: Photographer, refers to this “small and intimate album” as “most likely his first and perhaps intended to be seen only by the Dodgson family and close friends,” and continues that “[t]his album reveals just how quickly [Carroll] was able to grasp and master the complexities of the process as well as compose exceptionally elegant images.” These photographs came to the Center through the acquisition of the Gernsheim collection, whose images document the history of photography from its beginning. The Center’s Warren Weaver collection holds rare editions of Carroll’s books, including two inscribed copies of the 1883 Rhyme? And Reason?, from which this illustration for “Hiawatha’s Photographing” originates. Manuscripts, correspondence, and juvenilia fill out the Center’s Carroll collection. In addition, a large number of items related to Alice in Wonderland are found in the Byron and Susan Sewell collection, which includes translations of the work into 21 languages, as well as parodies and adaptations of the story for television, theater, and film. Viewing Carroll’s photographs, especially in the preserved albums in which he arranged them, provides not only insight into his life’s story and the people with whom he associated, but also an understanding of his talents as an artist outside children’s literature.
Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.