Magazine article Artforum International

The Opposite of Sex: Sarah Boxer on the Photographs of Lewis Carroll. (from the Vault Preview)

Magazine article Artforum International

The Opposite of Sex: Sarah Boxer on the Photographs of Lewis Carroll. (from the Vault Preview)

Article excerpt

TAKE AWAY THE WHIFF OF PEDOPHILIA IN THE photographs of Lewis Carroll and what's left? Perhaps the idea that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Carroll, was playing on the boundaries between dreaming and waking and between theatricality and absorption. "Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll," a traveling exhibition of seventy-six vintage prints organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and opening there August 3, will look at Dodgson's photography from an art-historical perspective-- that is, without the wink and smirk.

Enough speculation about whether this shy, stuttering Victorian did or did not propose marriage to Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, when she was just eleven years old. Enough about Dodgson's predilection for those intense little girls in their nighties, whom Vladimir Nabokov (a Carroll translator) described as "sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade." It is time to look beyond the dreadfulness to the charade itself.

This is not to say that the little girls will get short shrift. While the show includes a few of Dodgson's photographs of adults, boys, and prehistoric skeletons, as well as some pictures by his contemporaries--Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, and David Wilkie Wynfield, among others--it is almost wholly devoted to Dodgson's pictures of girls playing beggars, princesses, dreamers, and sleepers. The difference is that this exhibition will give Dodgson the pre-Freudian interpretation he so richly deserves.

Consider St. George and the Dragon, 1875, Dodgson's picture of a boy on a rocking horse pointing his long sword at a tall girl dressed in white. It's hard to see past the repressed sexual content of this picture. But maybe it can be done. For one thing, as curator Douglas R. Nickel notes in his provocative catalogue essay, the picture is clearly and cheerfully fake. The sword is cardboard, the horse is wooden, and the dragon is a child in a leopard skin. Like Cameron, Dodgson liked to make tableaux referring to mythology and literature. And, like her, he didn't mind showing the photographs "as the rudimentary play-acted constructions they are." The scenes were left rough so that his Victorian audience could puzzle out the myths and stories they represented.

In 1888 Dodgson, who loved the theater, wrote an article titled "The Stage and the Spirit of Reverence" that included the line "What mattered it to us that all this was fiction? …

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