Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland has bought him lasting literary fame (and a recent cinematic revival courtesy of Tim Burton), but Carroll was also a pioneer in photography. Here are some of his lessons that are still relevant today.
Picture by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) from Wikimedia Commons
Noted Carroll scholar Edward Wakeling presented a lecture on Carroll’s photographic endeavours at the British Library in London recently. Carroll took over 3000 photographs between 1856 and 1880 — an enormous number given the expensive and cumbersome equipment needed, the complex combination of chemicals needed, and the tedious nature of the process itself. Sitters for portraits often had to remain still for a minute or more, which explains why many favoured landscapes and spurned the notion of photographing children.
In contrast, by Wakefield’s reckoning more than half of Carroll’s output consisted of photographs of kids (though, contrary to popular perception, child nudes were not a prominent feature of his work). While some of his approaches were a result of technical limitations, they’re still worth bearing in mind even with a modern digital SLR or camera phone.
Exhaust your subjects first
Getting kids to sit still can be difficult. Carroll would photograph children after they’d played games and other outdoor activities, making it more likely that they’d stay in one position when needed. That also helped him build a rapport, an essential requirement for any portrait photographer.
Exploit natural light
Victorian amateur photographers had to rely almost exclusively on natural light — when Carroll got the opportunity to construct a dedicated studio of sorts, it was because there was spare rooftop space available. A modern flash makes that less essential, but if you’re asking family or friends to specifically pose, then consider doing it outdoors.
Think about where the hands and heads are
Because subjects had to sit still for extended periods, their hands needed to be comfortable, but they could still be positioned in an interesting way. For group shots, Carroll also went to considerable lengths to ensure that the heads of his subjects weren’t all in a line,
Subjects don’t always need to look at the camera
For slow exposures, getting subjects to pose in profile and not look directly at the camera — a tactic Carroll sometimes favoured, as in the self-portrait seen here — reduced the odds of a blink ruining the shot. On a modern camera, it can improve the naturalness of the shot and reduce the risk of red-eye. Picture from Wikimedia Commons
Don’t fuss over the location
Many a modern Flickr album is filled with shots of identical-looking people visiting well-known tourist sites, with the emphasis on the background rather than the person. In the Victorian era, photo mobility wasn’t as common, but professional photographers often used elaborate painted backdrops and sets.
Carroll rejected that approach, using very plain backdrops (such as monochrome walls) and concentrating on the person in the shot. “The sitter was the most important feature; the backdrop didn’t matter,” Wakeling explained.
Keep careful records of everything
In 1875 Carroll began cataloguing all of his photographs, numbering them in the order they were taken — an approach that has made the work of subsequent generations of scholars in dating the photos and identifying their subjects much easier. That’s less of a necessity when digital images store that information in meta-data, but do remember to ensure the time and date on your camera is accurate.