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For his most famous child portrait, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) drew inspiration from an eighteenth-century painting

By Roy Flukinger

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) photography collection. More than 50 items from that collection, including the portraits highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.

 

Posing for the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson (1832–1898) for over a dozen years, Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864–1925) grows up before our eyes through the series of portraits made of her during the 1860s and 1870s. Named after Princess (later Queen) Alexandra, who was a close friend of her mother, Xie (pronounced “Ecksy”) was the daughter of a clerical colleague of Dodgson’s at Christ Church College in Oxford. She began sitting for Dodgson’s tableaux at the early age of four, and, by at least one historian’s count, sat for him more than 50 times before she turned 16. Several other children—or “child-friends”—that Dodgson photographed were quickly bored with dressing up and sitting for long poses before the camera, but Xie participated well into her teens and is frequently referenced in the photographer’s diaries.

 

Dodgson’s first, or “seated,” portrait of the costumed Xie is directly influenced by one of the greatest child portraits of the Georgian Era, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of Penelope Boothby (1785–1791). Penelope, the only child and heir of Sir Brooke Boothby, the seventh baronet, and his wife, Susanna, was painted at the age of three in Reynolds’s London studio in July 1788. By all accounts, Reynolds enjoyed the company of small children as much as Dodgson and had a fine relationship with the young Penelope throughout their sessions. Art historians attribute the endearing quality of the painting to their brief but strong personal bond.

 

Another factor contributing to the painting’s fame was the tragic fate of its sitter. Young Penelope would spend the remainder of her short life at the family estate at Ashbourne Hall in Derbyshire. She died apparently of encephalitis in 1791, a month before her sixth birthday. Her death led to the tragic collapse of her parents’ marriage. After the final breakup of the family estate, this most successful of Reynolds’s child portraits eventually found its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Dodgson undoubtedly fell under its spell a half century later.

 

Dodgson posed a costumed but clearly older Xie in a position similar to the Reynolds painting. He also had her stand in costume for a second pose. For the final image from the series, he brought into his studio a wicker chaise and an Oriental parasol, had Xie remove her oversized “Mob-Cap” bonnet, and placed her in semi-recline in the chaise. The resulting tableau, an original Dodgson composition combined with Xie’s own studied gaze, would become one of the great child portraits of the Victorian Era.

 

Dodgson, who gained early fame in mathematics and literature under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, remained an avid photographer for 25 years until abandoning the art in 1880. He retired from teaching the following year but stayed in Oxford, writing about mathematics until his death in 1898. Xie Kitchin published no memoirs or reminiscences of her friendship with Dodgson, but she would go on to marry and live in London until her death in 1925. Interestingly, the first of her six children was named Penelope.

 

Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

In the Galleries: Jonas Bendiksen’s contact sheets

By Jessica McDonald

In 2012, Magnum introduced the sale of carefully reproduced contact sheets, offering “the opportunity to own a piece of Magnum’s history.” Indeed the digital turn in photography has forced the contact sheet, once an inextricable part of the photographic process, into obsolescence. Contact sheets, made when negatives are printed directly in contact with photographic paper, gave photographers a first look at their images and provided an important tool for editing. They also serve as artifacts, revealing how photographers approach a subject and work through time and space.

 

In a statement for the 2011 group publication Magnum: Contact Sheets, edited by International Center of Photography Curator Kristen Lubben, Jonas Bendiksen (b. 1977) marveled at his apparent hesitancy to “use up” too much film on any one scene. He recalled, “here we were in a cloud of white butterflies circling the remains of a Soyuz space rocket’s second stage, while local farm boys were gutting it for scrap metal. In total I shot less than half a roll of film. From the basic angle and composition from which I got the final selection, I clicked the shutter three times. That would not have happened today.”

 

Bendicksen’s contact sheet and final image are on view through January 5 in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.

 

Click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

In the Galleries: Susan Meiselas

By Jessica McDonald

Susan Meiselas. “Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
Susan Meiselas. “Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.

 

In a stunning break with the black-and-white tradition of war photography, Susan Meiselas’s pulsating color images documenting the resistance against—and ultimate insurrection of—the brutal Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua were published in magazines and newspapers around the world. The revolutionaries quickly appropriated her photographs, adapting them for billboards, postage stamps, posters, and other imagery in support of their cause. In 1981 Meiselas (b. 1948) published her landmark book Nicaragua, June 1978July 1979, combining photographs, historical documentation, and the personal testimony of Nicaraguans in an attempt to “overcome the sensational quality of fragmentary news reports by placing these events in the context of an evolving political process.” Retracing her steps, she returned to Nicaragua in 1991 for the film Pictures from a Revolution, and again in 2004 for the project Reframing History, an installation of 19 mural-size enlargements of her original photographs at the sites where they were first made, reigniting discussions about the past and reconsiderations of dreams once held of a better future.

 

For some Magnum photographers, picture stories published in magazines and newspapers represent just the first stage in the development of a much larger project. Some consider the book the ideal platform for extended visual narratives. Conceived independently and conducted outside the traditional framework of photojournalism, books have become a mainstay of documentary practice and an integral part of Magnum’s creative repertoire. Since the agency’s founding, Magnum Photos has published dozens of group projects, and its members have collectively produced over 1,000 volumes that together form both a history of Magnum and a history of the modern world.

 

Photographs from Meiselas’s project in Nicaragua are on view through January 5 in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age. Meiselas will speak this weekend at the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.”

“Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan” exhibition opens today at the Ransom Center

By Jane Robbins Mize

 

Photo of Eli Reed by Pete Smith.
Photo of Eli Reed by Pete Smith.

 

Eli Reed has worked as a professional photographer with Magnum Photos since 1988 and as a clinical professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin since 2005. To Reed, his success directly results from the simple motivating question, “Why would you want to be less than what you can be?”

 

Throughout his career, Reed’s understanding of his potential has been bolstered by his active relentlessness. “You’ve got to do this work because you really want to do it,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going to happen easily. It’s not going to happen ‘just because.” Reed’s combined vision and dedication has driven his career from newspaper journalism to international photography in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

 

Perhaps more significantly, Reed insisted, he knows when to say yes. “You get… in to various situations because of you,” he said, “You make the decisions, and it’s important [to know] when to say yes. We’re all living on borrowed time from the day we’re born to the day we pass away, so what are you going to do before you go?” Reed strives to share this lesson with his students, emphasizing what seems to be his mantra in both photography and life at large: “Awareness is everything.”

 

It was Reed’s awareness that first led him to Sudan in 2001. The photographer was asked to join a film crew to document the Lost Boys, young refugees from the Second Sudanese Civil War. Although he was already particularly interested in Africa, Reed said the opportunity to travel there arose because he was “paying attention,” and he hopes his audience will do the same. The goal of the photo documentary of the Lost Boys, he explained, is “to educate people” and to spark interest in and action on their behalf. A dozen photographs are on display at the Harry Ransom Center through December 8 in an exhibit entitled Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan.

 

Ultimately, all aspects of Reed’s profession stem from a single motivation: to “pass on” information and experience, either through the classroom or professional photography.

 

“I’ve had a really interesting life,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of people in different situations… and some terrible things happen, and some wonderful things happen, and it’s called the ‘Circle of Life.’ I can’t think of a better thing to do than, not just to share it, but to help people who are going on into this ‘Brave New World.’”