Sensationalism, the Two Camps and the Eternal Child

(Last Updated On: March 15, 2015)

In a passing conversation, I got a tip that there was a photograph attributed to Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) that had been floating around since at least the 1970s. It is purported to be a photograph of Lorina Liddell, the eldest of the Liddell children with whom Dodgson spent a lot of time and took photographs. When I looked into it, I realized this was not an off-hand remark. BBC2 had just aired a documentary entitled The Secret World of Lewis Carroll on January 31st in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Hosted by Martha Kearney, the film mostly honors the literary achievement of this artist, but in a bizarre twist, the producers claimed a last minute discovery of a photograph suggesting a more sinister interest in children by Dodgson.

I was told that the image could be found on the internet, however I was only able to find this very small one. I would appreciate someone coming forward with a better copy. Two or three versions of this reproduction were available.

Lorina photo cleanSuch a “discovery” is undoubtedly an irresistible bit of sensationalism for filmmakers and would inevitably, and quite incongruously, be included. Taking into account the overall structure of the film, it really seemed tacked on. Anyone who is an expert on the photographic work of Dodgson would recognize this as a forgery (or misidentified) and Edward Wakeling and many others have said so. The real mystery in my mind is why it was produced in the first place. Was it a forgery to discredit Dodgson? Was it a lark by another photographer who noticed the resemblance between a model and the real Lorina Liddell? Or were the identifying marks on the back just a guess by some art dealer who thought he recognized the model and period?

Before delving into historical, psychological and personality issues, it is important to notice that the producers focused only on the forensic evidence and only fleetingly mentioned that real experts on the man considered it a fake. After being in a private gallery in the Paris area, the image was inherited by Musée Cantini in Marseilles. That is where it was subjected to tests by Nicholas Burnett. According to him, the paper stock, albumen residue and probable type of camera—requiring a wet collodion process—was consistent with it having been produced when Lorina was a young teen. He also commented that the mold damage was consistent with that age and would have been difficult to fake. David Anley subjected it to further analysis in the hopes of determining if the model could have been Lorina. After some equivocation by both experts, they each admitted leaning toward the conclusion that the photo was genuine. Particularly disturbing about this is that in a court of law, such experts’ conclusions are compelling testimony in convicting defendants.

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This seems to have offered the tantalizing possibility that Dodgson was a repressed pedophile. Given his status as a member of the clergy, repressed is certainly an accurate adjective, but the problem with the term pedophile is that it is far from satisfactorily defined. Kenneth Clark noted that institutional authorities hate dictionaries and encyclopedias because they clearly define things and powerful people and institutions need an environment of ambiguity to thrive. For the purposes of this essay—and the proper definition in my mind—I am defining it as the selfish exploitation (in person) of a child for sexual gratification—and presumably having some deleterious effect on the child’s mental and/or physical well-being. By that definition, Dodgson was certainly not a pedophile and it is unfortunate that his nieces, probably out of a sense of propriety, saw fit to remove pages from his diaries that may have offered clues to his thoughts and mental state.

He often scolded himself for deviations from his personal standard of honor. Being a clergyman, it is likely that these “failings” had at least some sexual component. Although I could personally relate to the man in most ways, we do diverge on the point of sexual repression. I don’t mean to validate Freudian theory, but the sex drive is a powerful force and cannot be dismissed easily. In fact, it was the Catholic Church’s political maneuver to have its priests and bishops be celibate that was key to centuries of sexual misconduct and abuse of children by these celibates. The other factor—given the doctrine of original sin—is the appalling lack of education priests get about the realities of human sexuality. The propensity for this behavior in this demographic is remarkable considering how rare sexual child abuse generally is. The documentary notes that Dodgson did take a similar oath and would, at the very least, have been confused by his own impulses. Despite protestations to the contrary, thought and action do not amount to the same thing. And regardless of whatever confusing distractions he may have experienced, there can be no doubt that his regard for children was worshipful. This would have been consistent with Rousseau’s philosophy that children represented a state of grace that would be corrupted only as they grew up.

The biggest error made by the amateur historian is not accounting for how the context of behavior changes over time and in different cultures. I am constantly (almost ad nauseum) reminded by colleagues of this when analyzing the actions of people living in the Victorian Era or the Hippie Generation. Even if there can be some objective humanist standard of ethical behavior, it is far from easy to disentangle oneself from the biases of one’s own culture. Most people are not even aware of the effect that their culture’s propaganda has on them personally. When taking this all into account, it behooves us to regard Dodgson’s quirks with a compassionate eye and commend him for his personal and public accomplishments and the way he enriched the lives of his child friends, despite the constraints of his society.

With all due respect to academic experts, I am not privy to the sound bites we are supposed to use when discussing the personal lives of celebrities. In the case of Dodgson, I see very little that reflects a deep understanding of his relationship with children. I am peridocially reminded how certain people have an excellent rapport with children; the Kye Tanson post is a recent case in point. The remarkable thing about such people is not so much that they do not fit into adult society which is often a dreadful bore, but because children are treated with respect as real human beings in their own right, these children would naturally gravitate toward such adults, expressing a remarkable confidence. One should not underestimate the capacity of little girls to pursue—perhaps for largely selfish reasons—these relationships and ingratiate themselves to such providers of stories, games, boat rides, tea parties and doting attention. In the case of Alice Liddell, there is evidence that she had a kind of pushy personality that was nonetheless charming—demanding stories, presents and other favors. Acknowledgment of the personal agency of Alice is hardly mentioned in historical accounts. It is therefore conceivable (and I think, likely) that whether or not Alice was Dodgson’s favorite, he was certainly hers up to a certain age. The fact that these girls grow up and change their personalities and priorities was an ongoing source of distress for Dodgson and he would, half jokingly, plead for them not to grow any further. With regards to his personal interest in Lorina, let’s suppose that he had some airy romantic notions about her at one time, I believe if he had actually seen her as a naked young teen, he would have been somewhat revolted. The visual cues for sexual desire (principally pubic hair, breasts and fat deposition) are quite different from the kind of pristine beauty of a child’s body.

Finally, some thought should be given to the personality of people who genuinely enjoy spending time with children. For them, it is almost as if they were promised a magical transformation into adulthood that never happened and they remained eternally children. They are physically adult and have adult libidos, but they seem to have a stronger desire for engaging in non-competitive (sometimes nonsensical) play, an infectious enthusiasm for hobbies, less patience for social niceties and a somewhat refreshing bluntness that may seem odd coming out of an adult’s mouth. These people provide an invaluable service to the next generation and, when endowed with wit and intelligence, an immutable impact on culture as the tales of Alice did.

In the decades that followed Helmut Gernsheim’s rediscovery that the man known as Lewis Carroll was also a skilled photographer of children, Morton Norton Cohen—who appeared on the documentary—discovered that some nudes did still exist. And those scholars who were not rigorously versed in the peculiarities of Victorian culture inevitably applied their own cultural standards of decency. In a defensive reaction to the proposition that Dodgson might have had unhealthy relationships with his little subjects, other scholars may have overcompensated—even denying that Dodgson had any special affinity and bond with children. The result has been a polarization in Lewis Carroll scholarship that, although sensational in our time, is a cynical and irrelevant distraction from the real character of the artist and his contribution to society. This “Two Camps” phenomenon makes the artist—unable to defend himself—a political pawn of grandstanding academics. Scholarship should be used to illuminate the public about our society’s history, not a tool to gain public notoriety. Shame goes to those who, out of expediency, do sloppy research and cater to the lowest common denominator of mainstream culture. BBC2 has certainly come a long way from its landmark days of productions like the Civilisation series.

31 thoughts on “Sensationalism, the Two Camps and the Eternal Child

  1. This does not look at all like Lorina Liddell. Furthermore, Lewis Carroll would have paid far more attention to the composition of a photograph, putting in some simple props or using a background. A few other points: Carroll, being Church of England, could have married, which would have at least given him outward respectability if he had had anything to cover up. I’m not sure whether marriage might have cost him his fellowship, but I don’t think so. And what other nude 12 year-olds did he photograph? I haven’t seen any in books, and have been to exhibitions of his work. As one writer said, this looks like the work of some hack photographer, perhaps even a child pornographer.

    • I am inclined to disagree with you on all counts. First off, with my own eyes I can see that the subject of this photo looks remarkably like Lorina Liddell. Secondly, at David Anley, the photographic forensic analyst verified that the eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth are consistent with other known photographs of Lorina Liddell, both as a child and an adult.

      As for the lack of props or background, that does not eliminate Dodgson as the photographer. If Dodgson had convinced a pubescent Lorina to fully disrobe for a photograph, it isn’t a huge stretch to think that it would be a photo he would want to take in private. Particularly if he himself thought that the photo was inappropriate. If that were true, than the very nature of this photo would be personal and would not need props or to be couched as art.

      It is possible that Lorina Liddell’s mother either found out that he had photographed her without her clothes or just decided that he had an inappropriate interest in her. In either case, that would have most certainly caused a huge rift between the Liddells and Dodgson.

      If that were the case, in order to protect his position and his reputation, Dodgson would most likely deny the assertion and would assume the role of an injured party. He would present himself as a man who was just fond of the children (as I’m sure he actually was) and a who has had his pure motivations and his reputation unfairly called into question.

      Additionally, there is no doubt that he gravitated from taking pictures of fully dressed girls to full nudes. If you look at the timeline for the subject matter of his photographs, you see an evolution of his photography from the 1850’s to 60’s of fully dressed little girls to a “fancy dress” outfit on Alice’s with one nipple showing. By the 1870s Dodgson was taking full nudes of Beatrice and Evelyn Hatch, Annie and Frances Henderson and Maude Melbury. Clearly there was a progression from fully dressed to nude photographs. All the nudes are done as “art” shots. Perhaps, if he took this photo, this nude shot of Lorina caused him so much personal turmoil and disaster that he reverted to younger models and never again strayed from couching the photos as “art”.

      As far as why Dodgson never married, please research “the Oxford Movement”. You will find that Dodgson was in fact bound by the celibacy of Roman Catholicism due to the return of those values in the Anglican Church because of the Oxford Movement. So no, he couldn’t marry and be a Don at Oxford at that time.

      As far as the assertion that it was ” some hack photographer, perhaps even a child pornographer”, well none of us know for sure but…

      The photo is of the right time, consistent with his camera, consistent with his development process and materials. The model matches the physical features of Lorina Liddell. I don’t claim to be certain that this photo was taken by Dodgson but I don’t think this can be dismissed out of hand. Additional photographic forensics need to be performed on this photo and other known photos of Lorina Liddell. With the assistance of computer programs it is now possible to achieve a degree of certainty of above 95%. If the Photo is identified as Lorina Liddell, with a certainty in excess of 95% then who would the photographer be if not Dodgson?

      • We at Pigtails are not afraid of dissent, so thank you for taking the time to make your point. I do a lot of reading and feel compelled to comment that I am sensitive to the tone of writers and how it reveals their agendas, no matter how reasoned and researched their arguments may seem. Your piece feels defensive as though your reputation or career depended on the public’s acceptance (and trust in modern authoritative techniques). I do not wish to engage in an ad hominem fight here, but I wanted our readers to realize that the author of this comment has a strong personal (or special interest) stake in this.

        I realize the commenter is responding, in part, to other comments made here and not necessarily to my own, so I am not refuting the author’s more cogent points; I have simply allowed some of our more adamant readers some small voice here.

        OK, so the girl looks a lot like Lorina Liddell, but my experience tells me that there are many young people who look alike. They have not developed a lot of distinguishing features that come with age. The younger they are, the more likely they have doppelgangers out there.

        Regarding the metrics of facial features used to identify people, that is still a developing technology. The BBC was either being deliberately deceptive or neglectful about the statistical reliability of the particular analyses they used. Good scientists will always err on the side of conservatism and viewers will note that the analyst was pressured to give his opinion by the host. These kinds of metrics are better used in a negative sense–to confirm that two images are not of the same person. Concluding that two images are of the same person would reasonably require a much higher standard of certainty than 95% (the conventional statistical standard, but not always appropriate). Given the access to only one photo (and given its quality), this may never be possible. What is much more certain is that the photograph used materials and procedures consistent with that period and (for reasons too lengthy to go into here) is probably not a more modern hoax.

        A better way to make a confirmation would be to study and consider the artist’s Modus Operandi (M.O.). That is why experts familiar with Dodgson’s style and personality concur that this is a fake. We are not dismissing the possibility out of hand, just that given what we have seen and know, it seems an absurd and strenuous speculation meant only to sensationalize the topic for personal gain. These “intuitions” are currently outside the scope of computerized forensic science because they involve many more variables than can be handled at present and many are not sufficiently defined to even serve as variables in a computer model. I should disclose, in all fairness, that experts’ opinions have been flawed in the past but most often when they are from hired guns working within an industry with certain biases as opposed to those amateurs who truly love and understand a subject. Quite a few readers of this site are awed by the image of the girl child and could better fathom what Dodgson was or was not capable of than those who engage in idle speculation of logical possibilities.

        I cannot comment on a few things because, in my opinion, there simply is not enough evidence to even come to a coherent conclusion: the reason for the rift between Dodgson and the Liddells, the evolution of his nudes and their original quantity, any romantic components in Dodgson’s relationship with the girls and the provenance of the “Lorina” photo before it appeared in Pierre Louys’ collection.

        Another point that seems to be ignored is whether Lorina had some motivation to have such a photo made (or that Dodgson had a strong enough influence to compel her). I could imagine a teenager living under Victorian standards of propriety wanting to get back at her parents at times, but this would have been such an ill-bred way of doing it. By sheer conditioning, conceiving of and following through on such a scheme is extremely improbable. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to even entertain the notion that the image is of Lorina. But supposing it were, there would have been no shortage of “hacks” out there willing to do such a job, most probably in France. I expect finding such a photographer (I will not call him an artist) or studio would be about as difficult as finding a girl who belongs to a garage band today.

        Whenever scientific evidence and statistics begins to demonstrate a harm in a particular industry or cultural practice, there are always those hired guns who will come forward and use science (or the current standard of evidence) to mislead the public. Their job is to deliberately cast doubt with an air of authority. By stating the obvious fact that we cannot completely rule out Dodgson/Liddell as participants in this photo, the author still plants the impression of certainty, while avoiding a fallacious argument himself. Doubt is not the same as evidence and this comment has not really made a substantial contribution. If we are interested in the truth, we should ask questions that look at the whole picture. Do the pieces fit together coherently? Have all the parts of the big picture been accounted for? These are not strictly scientific principles, but I believe they are necessary if we are to avoid the pitfalls of scientific information corrupted by power.

        • Ron,

          Nice rebuttal. I would like however, to point out that while circumstantial evidence and my instincts do slightly lean me toward the pro camp. I am only leaning slightly. I am nowhere near being invested in that position. I have an open mind that this photo could be either intentionally or unintentionally misattributed to Dodgson. Like everyone else, I have no idea who the actual photographer or the subject of this photo are.

          The purpose of my reply was intellectual honesty. I wanted to point out that John Butler’s outright dismissal was refutable, based on the circumstantial evidence we do have. This photo exists, it has the subject and photographer identified on it in a handwritten note and it has not yet been proven to be false. This leaves open both the possibility that the photo’s attribution could be correct or that it could be incorrect. That may make people in the con camp unhappy but there it is. Neither the full provenance nor the legitimacy of this photograph have been positively verified or refuted.

          True scientific analysis of this photo has yet to be conducted. My personal take on the forensic analysis in “The Secret World of Lewis Carroll”, is that while David Anley may have appeared as an expert witness in court trials, scientifically he leaves a lot to be desired. Per his biography, he was a photographic analyst for the British Army, which means he looked at aerial photographs of places, structures and vehicles. When he got out of the Army he stayed in photography but gravitated to becoming a forensic photo “expert”. This is an entirely different skill set. While he may have studied physical evidence and developed expertise in facial recognition, it does not mean his opinion is infallible.

          That aside, while I used a 95% figure on facial recognition, I was erring well on the side of caution. Facial recognition software technology has already reached the point where computers can identify individuals from random photographs taken on the street. That is to say, as long as reference photos exist in a database, a computer can identify an individual from a database of millions of individuals. While this advanced facial recognition software is primarily limited to government entities, one day it will be commercially available. I would like to see a true facial recognition scan run on this photo, not an “expert opinion”.

          The material analysis of the photograph was conducted by Nicholas Burnett, a picture conservationist, once again, not a scientist. I was horrified to see the four corners of the photo shaved off so that Nicholas Burnett could hold the photo up to the light. No scientist in his right mind would have treated a historical photograph in such a way that would result in very real permanent damage to the photo. I am shocked that a so called picture conservationist would have treated a historical picture in such a fashion. What he wished to do, could and should have been done with a three dimensional infrared scan. Any removal of shavings should have been done on a very limited basis, exclusively for the purpose of chemical or microscopic testing. Also, in the con camp’s favor, Nicholas Burnett contradicted himself during the examination in a most damning way. He claimed that the photo had been developed with egg whites, then, moments later, claimed that it had be developed using the wet collodion process. These two forms of photographic processing are not the same. The wet collodion process replaced the use of egg whites with a chemical gel. If egg white is evident, then the photo is most likely not Dodgson’s, as he was reputed to develop using the wet collodion process.

          Another piece of the scientific analysis that should be done, is to identify the type and age of the ink used in the inscription written on the original mount. Was it written during Dodgson’s lifetime or shortly after he died? Was it written during Lorina’s lifetime or shortly after she died? There is much that can still be done to attempt to prove or disprove the attribution that this photo is Dodgson’s work.

          Plenty of biographical “experts” have weighed in on both the pro and con sides argument but ultimately they are issuing their opinions, not facts. Let me ask you this: do we truly know all that goes on in the head of our next door neighbors or even our closest friends? If we don’t, than we certainly can’t claim to know what went on in the head of a quirky Victorian era Oxford Don who died in 1898. None of the pro or con biographers can know either. Not unless Dodgson wrote down every single thought he had and it were preserved with no pages cut out. The information is just not available to anyone and the result is that we have personal speculation, based on biases, passed off as if they are fact.

          There, I have said my piece and I will leave this issue for others to haggle over. Hopefully my “tone” does not cause you to cast me as having an agenda. I disagreed with John Butler based upon his sweeping comments, not because I am convinced that Dodgson was the photographer. He might be but then again, he might not.

          • I am pleased that I did not cause you to become too defensive and your reply did clarify things: for one thing, that you were refuting Butler. I can also see that you are dedicated to good science and not sloppy and misleading statements based purely on plausible conjecture. I am also pleased that you would take the trouble to stick your neck out on this forum which is a testament to the kind of level-headed discussion I like to have on this site. In fact, if you have any interest in the material covered on Pigtails, I would like you to consider contributing a piece or two; there is certainly too much out there for the few of us to cover by ourselves.

            I accept the cogency of your statements and will let them stand. I wish only to make one addition. Although it is true we cannot know all the thoughts of a person (even if it were possible to write them all down), I think there are times in reading someone’s account, that we feel a deep connection to the writer. This happened to me when I read Cohen’s reproduction of Dodgson’s letters and also in reading some of Graham Ovenden’s commentary in his books on young girls. Although such subtle things are certainly outside the scope of material science, there is certainly some synergy to be accounted for here. Yes, that synergy only goes so far since, in many ways, I am different from Dodgson and Ovenden. These are the intuitions that bias me and I suppose I must resign myself to the fact that many out there are going to ascribe insidious or malicious intent on my part simply because of my dedication to this site focused on the cult of the young girl.

  2. I thought the BBC documentary was scurrilous and I was surprised at Kearney going along with such poor pseudo journalism. The programme didn’t surprise me, however, as the bien pensants at the beeb are now obsessed with making amends for the mistakes of their predecessors in the 1970s. Being Trots to every last member of staff they subscribe to the modern trend of looking back at persons and events in history, judging them by their own modern day ‘enlightened’, ‘civilised’ standards and trashing reputations accordingly.

    • Very well said!
      But now let me ask you, just out of curiosity, what is a “Trot”?
      I guess that here in the U.S., we don’t have that expression.

      • Never mind, in the meantime I found it out for myself.
        It’s a person who is considered to be on the far left,
        that is, a “Trotskyite”.

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