Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Carroll the Photographer

Caricature of a photographer using a camera and tripod.

Illustration by Arthur B. Frost for Carroll’s
poem "Hiawatha’s Photographing."

Carroll referred to photography as devotion, entertainment, fascination, practice, chief interest, and his "one amusement." His long career as a photographer (1856-1880) coincides with the "Golden Era" of nineteenth-century photography, which centered on the wet collodion negative process and the corresponding positive albumen print process. These processes were complex and required considerable technical expertise, practice, patience and experience to master. The photographer was required to set up his camera and tripod and pose his subject. The next step involved coating and sensitizing a plate of glass in the darkroom (or, if in the field, in a portable darkroom tent), transporting the "wet plate" to the camera, and almost immediately making an exposure upon it. Finally, the plate was returned to the darkroom for rapid developing and fixing before it could dry.

Lewis Carroll's brother posing with a variety of fishing gear.

Skeffington Hume Dodgson with
fishing gear, August 1856.
Skeffington, the second Dodgson
son, was photographed while he
and Carroll were on holiday in
the Lake District.

Carroll favored the albumen print almost exclusively, like most photographers of his day. Utilizing a binding solution of processed egg whites to hold light-sensitive silver salts onto the coated surface of a thin sheet of paper, the albumen process allowed the wet collodion negatives, once they had been fixed and dried, to be placed in contact with the sensitized paper surface and printed. The resulting prints typically had a lustrous surface and a broad tonal range. Carroll’s surviving glass negatives and paper prints within the Ransom Center collections display a mastery of the technique which only a devoted practitioner could accomplish. They were the product of his own special looking-glass: the camera.

Dog sitting next to a wooden fence with a rifle leaning against it.

Dido, a dog belonging to Carroll’s
brother Wilfred Dodgson, ca 1857.

Carroll was pleased when a child chose to mount a portrait by him and once noted proudly that Tennyson had his photos hanging "on the line." But the only professional exhibition which contained his work was one sponsored by the Photographic Society of London in 1858. It was the photographic album which became Carroll’s chosen medium for saving and presenting his photographs. As he traveled about with his camera gear he was able to collect the autographs of his sitters and show them how their pictures would fit into his album. The selections here are taken from the five Carroll albums held by the Ransom Center.

Two of Lewis Carroll's aunts playing chess on a small table.

Margaret Anne and Henrietta Mary Lutwidge, ca 1859.
Carroll photographed two of his maternal aunts in an
early, classical photographic motif - the chess game.

Three young girls sitting on the ground.

Mary and Charlotte Webster and Margaret Gatey, ca 1857.

Next: Photographs of Children

Introductory - Early Life at Croft Rectory - Carroll at Oxford -
Carroll the Photographer - Photographs of Children -
Logic, Mathematics, and Puzzles - Alice - In Memoriam