Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
“It is no wonder,” said the lords,
“She is more beautiful than day”.
As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien:
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
“This beggar maid shall be my queen!”
The Beggar Maid
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (written 1833, published 1842)
On the 4th of May 1852, a one hundred and sixty-four years ago today, Alice Liddell was born. Whilst recently working on a little film for Alice Day (25th April) I revisited the photographs Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) took of Alice. Amongst these was, of course, Dodgson’s most famous photograph: the one he took in 1858, inspired by Tennyson’s poem.
The countless essays and hundreds of thousands of words that have been devoted to this photograph attest to its power. It has delighted, infuriated, intrigued, troubled and moved both Kind and un-Kind alike. Even after we’ve absorbed every square millimeter of its surface, noticed and noted every one of its elements and details, its power is not exhausted but remains, grows even, a quality that only the greatest photographs possess.
The traditional photographer has a limited repertoire of tools available to him for effecting the kind of revelation embodied in a photograph such as this one. The most significant ones (arguably) are the choice of lens, which determines how perspective is rendered (wide-angle, normal, telephoto); where he places the camera in relation to his subject; what shape he cuts out from the visual reality in front of the camera (usually some form of rectangle); and the moment and the duration of exposure.
The photographer can also control the size of the lens’s aperture – which affects the duration of the exposure and the depth of the plane of focus; and there are many choices to be made concerning the light-sensitive surface that will record the image: its size, its exposure and development.
Finally one must not forget that with some kinds of subject (portraiture, still life) the photographer can interact with his subject and arrange what is in front of the lens.
Dodgson’s main reason for placing Alice next to a wall was to give her something to lean against, thus helping her to keep still during the long exposure required by the collodion plates he used (half a minute to a minute in good light). Likewise the rug at her feet is there for Alice’s comfort.
The camera has been placed at head height. It is likely that Dodgson performed many of tasks necessary for the taking of this photograph on his knees – including composing and framing the photograph in the ground glass screen at the back of the camera, a dark cloth over his head to make the dim, desaturated, inverted image visible.
Next, with a magnifying glass, he would have adjusted the point of maximum focus for her eyes.
Elements of this photograph hint at different time scales: the wall’s permanence, age and roughness contrast with Alice’s youth and the purity and evenness of her skin. Alice herself, though evidently mortal, to a certain extent transcends time because she provokes in us emotions that are experienced in our present.
Only the nasturtiums at her feet feel temporal and temporary in this image. A photograph taken earlier on in this session shows them in a better state, though in the process of being trodden down. Notice also that Dodgson has shifted the camera’s position (which would have sat upon a tripod) between these two exposures.
In the Beggar Maid photograph we see the nasturtiums being further trodden down, this time by Alice’s bare left foot. They are as much memento mori as, say, the broken lute string in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors‘. And, like that broken string, their role is more convincing for their being inconspicuous.
Those nasturtiums that have survived Alice’s feet turn towards us as if seeking our attention. However, next to Alice, they remain insignificant, ‘unrevived’ by our lack of interest in their fate. The fate of these plants, in an inconspicuous corner of this photograph, reminds us that compassion is not a necessary adjunct of beauty.
Her right Foot
Alice’s right foot is too close to the bottom edge of the picture.
One of the laws of visual composition is that any bright or otherwise important part of an image that is close to an edge will draw the viewer’s eye towards that edge and out of the frame of the picture. Controlling how the eye travels over the image is the essence of the art of composition (whether in photography, painting, sculpture or film) and the spell of the image is broken whenever the viewer’s eye leaves its boundaries.
Her foot’s proximity to the edge imparts to the whole image a certain instability and discomfort. This is exacerbated by the way her foot is stretching towards the edge – almost as if she were trying to stand upon it on tip-toes.
Dodgson would probably have been aware of this when he was composing the image on the ground glass – but something led him to make this particular choice. I suspect that he wanted the carpet at her foot to be as inconspicuous as possible.
However, having pointed out this flaw, I am very much in agreement with John Ruskin (who was also a friend and admirer of Alice Liddell) when he writes:
“[N]o good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art. . . . no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution.”
from ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1853)
I believe that, whilst we like our friends for their virtues and strengths, we love them for their flaws and weaknesses; these are what ignite our care and compassion and what make a person interesting. Our weaknesses, not our strengths, create our need for one another.
Likewise with Art: the photographs of Eugene Atget and the early works of Cartier-Bresson are often messy, rough and technically flawed, but I wouldn’t swap the least of these photographs for a thousand of the perfect, but unadventurous, ones so often found in the amateur photographic press – photographs where every leaf has a dew-drop on it, every sky is stunning and every basket contains a kitten.
A closer look
Photographers who have been working on an image too intensely for too long can end up with ‘visual indigestion’ – they become over-familiar with the image and may no longer be able to see it with the ‘fresh’ eyes necessary for making intelligent choices and judgements.
Turning the image upside down or looking at it in a mirror can refresh their vision. This makes the image less legible, more abstract. Some things or relationships become noticeable which familiarity had previously rendered invisible.
Let’s see what’s revealed when we turn the image upside down.
The first thing that strikes me is that the power of Alice’s gaze is neutralised.
The proximity of her foot to the edge means that she seems to be hanging, swinging even, by her toes from the top (or should that be ‘bottom’?) edge like a wonderland trapeze artist.
Next I notice how dominant is the white cloth of her beggar costume and how next to it her skin looks sensual and warm. The cloth seems to have both something of the texture of plaster and something of the hanging folds of flesh left after a liposuction – it has an aggressive, biological, almost ‘diseased’ look.
When I return the photograph to its correct orientation there remains a sense that her costume engulfs her like some alien entity in a horror film. Maybe the costume look so malevolent to me because I desire the body that it conceal…
If we look at the image in a mirror what immediately becomes more noticeable is that she now seems to be leaning away from us. This diminishes the intimacy of her pose.
People living in cultures which use a script that reads from left to right also read photographs, paintings, sculptures, moving images etc from left to right (which may explain why people instinctively go clockwise round exhibitions). This also means that the viewer conceptually situates himself at the left hand edge of the image.
In a portrait the viewer’s attention is always first drawn to the eyes. In the case of profiles where the sitter is looking to the right our gaze has to cross the back of their head to reach the eye. Profiles which look to the right tend to give the feeling that the model has their back turned to us, is sulking, avoiding the viewer, or looking out into emptiness.
When someone leans towards the right side of an image it feels as if they are leaning away from us.
Conversely, when they are leaning towards the left side of the image, as Alice does in the Beggar Maid photograph, it feels as if they are leaning into us and so their pose feels more intimate and sensual.
Dodgson made many photographs of his child-friends dressed-up in a variety of costumes. It is clear that in these photographs the intention was never to create a convincing deception: in the photograph below no one was ever going to be fooled into thinking that Xie Kitchin was a real ‘chinese’ little girl. The dressing up is a clearly a performance.
Likewise with the Beggar Maid photograph. Alice is clearly not a real beggar: she is spectacularly clean, as is her beggar’s shift, her hair is glossy and tidy, her feet, undamaged as a baby’s, are so tender that they require a carpet to stand on, and her face bears no trace of the privations and humiliations of poverty.
After her face the most significant part of this photograph is Alice’s right arm.
The arm’s gesture is not sincere. She holds her right arm against her body: beggars stretch out their hands towards you in a gesture which makes it easier for you to give them money and which symbolically brings their need into your life. The outstretched hand also has a defensive element to it – it signals ‘keep your distance’.
Alice may have had to hold her arm there simply in order to keep it still for the long exposure. But the fact that her hand is held against her body rather than held out to the viewer sends out its own signals: to give her the money she ostensibly seems to be asking for we would have to come closer to her than we would do for the boy in the above photograph. This makes her gesture feel like an invitation to approach her body.
Her hand is relaxed. Tease a child by holding a sweet just out of its reach and you will see how, through its energy and tension, a hand can express desire. There is no sense that what this beggar wants is our money. The begging feels like a pretext. But a pretext for what? What is it that she really wants? Maybe the clue is in her expression…
But before we look more closely at her face let us briefly note how her legs are parted, how her left arm points towards her crotch, which is also the point where the folds of her shift congregate and are at their most complicated, and how these folds repeat the shape of her cupped hand…
Another old photographer’s trick, useful when printing a portrait in the darkroom, is to consider each half of the sitter’s face separately.
If we cover up the right-hand half we get the following:
This is the dominant side of her face: it is the one closest to the viewer, it is the best illuminated, and it takes up more of the photograph’s surface than the other side. There is something masculine here, it could almost be a boy’s face; there is a certain hardness, brutality even (remember those down-trodden nasturtiums?); and am I deluding myself in seeing a little ‘resentment’ too?
Now let’s cover up the left-hand side of her face:
This side is much more feminine and child-like. The eye, maybe because it is more shaded, is held wide open and reveals more of the iris than her other eye, giving it a look of excitement and curiosity. The lips look sensuous and welcoming.
This duality between the two sides of her face maybe explain why Alice’s gaze in this photograph seems to shimmer tantalisingly between invitation and refusal, never quite seeming to resolve.
How did Dodgson feel about this photograph?
To what extent did Dodgson intend this photograph’s effect?
Dodgson ‘destroyed’ any exposures he wasn’t happy with by chemically removing the collodion emulsion from its glass support. He would then reuse the glass (which was expensive) for another exposure.
The fact that he kept this negative and printed it shows that it pleased him (two prints are known to exist).
Would Dodgson have had the conceptual vocabulary necessary for recognising that something special had happened in this photograph? Possibly not: the idea that our secret thoughts and desires could be revealed through signs, symbols and slips came into intellectual currency later with Freud.
Photographers sometimes achieve more than they deserve. Whilst no symphony or novel has ever been created by accident – many good photographs have. Photographers know that they are engaged in a kind of dance with, and against, the chaos of Time and Reality, a dance in which luck and serendipity play a major role.
A photograph will always show a lot more than a photographer was aware of at the time of exposure – usually this detracts from the intended effect (e.g. a pile of dog shit visible in an out-door fashion shoot) but sometimes the photographer ends up with more than they could have imagined or wished for.
Indeed it sometimes happens that a photograph communicates something that is beyond the photographer’s powers of appreciation.
Sometimes the photographer has a moment of intuition when, maybe being in a preternaturally alert and sensitive state, he perceives something which his mind is not quite up to formulating.
If he manages to capture this intuition on film he may – when inspecting the contact sheet in the comfort of his darkroom, several days later maybe – no longer recall that moment of intuition well enough to recognise its traces in the photograph.
The photograph may languish in his archives for years, decades (or, as is unfortunately likely, for ever) until his understanding has caught up to the moment of insight captured in the photograph, and on revisiting that photograph it blossoms into its full meaning before his eyes and he wonders how he could have ever overlooked such a special photograph.
Could it be that Dodgson never really understood this photograph? Did his rational, evaluating mind never ‘catch up’ to the moment of intuition that it seems to capture?
Or is it ourselves, living in a culture with very different ideas about childhood to those Dodgson would have held, who are misreading this photograph? Is it only recently, with paedo-hysteria, that it has become such a fraught and powerful image?
Art raises more questions than it answers.
So, with this in mind, I thought I might finish by listing those questions whose intractability (combined with the guillotine-like constraints of word-count) has obliged me to leave them un-addressed…
– What happened to create that gaze? It seems to occur in another of his photographs of Alice Liddell, though here it is not quite as intense.
– Did she change into her beggar costume in front of Dodgson? What was she wearing (if anything) beneath it? Did he adjust her costume? Did this create an erotic spark between them that made it onto the negative?
– Would Alice have been aware of the Tennyson poem that this photograph illustrates? Would she have noticed the compliment that Dodgson was paying her beauty by using this poem?
– How familiar was Dodgson with the behaviour of beggar girls and/or the existence of child prostitutes? Dodgson was notoriously averse to working class little girls (note that ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon‘ controversy occurred in 1885, long after this photograph was taken).
– What is the critical history of this photograph? How has this photograph been received and perceived since it was made?