Carroll’s “Photography Extraordinary”

Carroll’s humorous essay “Photography Extraordinary” was first published anonymously in an 1855 issue of The Comic Times

Exhibition label: 

The recent extraordinary discovery in Photography, as applied to the operations of the mind, has reduced the art of novel-writing to the merest mechanical labour. We have been kindly permitted by the  artist to be present during one of his experiments; but as the invention has not yet been given to the world, we are only at liberty to relate the results, suppressing all details of chemicals and manipulation.

The operator began by stating that the ideas of the feeblest intellect, when once received on properly prepared paper, could be “developed” up to any required degree of intensity. On hearing our wish that he would begin with an extreme case, he obligingly summoned a young man from the adjoining room, who appeared to be of the very weakest possible physical and mental powers. On being  asked what we thought of him, we candidly confessed that he seemed incapable of anything but sleep: our friend cordially assented to this opinion.

The machine being in position, and a mesmeric rapport established between the mind of the patient and the object glass, the young man was asked whether he wished to say anything; he feebly replied “Nothing.” He was then asked what he was thinking of, and the answer, as before, was “Nothing.” The artist on this pronounced him to be in a most satisfactory state, and at once commenced the operation.

After the paper had been exposed for the requisite time, it was removed and submitted to our inspection; we found it be covered with faint and almost illegible characters. A closer scrutiny revealed the following:—

“Alas! she would not hear my prayer!
Yet it were rash to tear my hair;
Disfigured, I should be less fair.
“She was unwise, I may say blind;
Once she was lovingly inclined;
Some circumstance has changd her mind.”

There was a moment’s silence; the pony stumbled over a stone in the path, and unseated his rider. A crash was heard among the dried leaves; the youth rose; a slight bruise on his left shoulder, and a disarrangement of his  cravat, were the only traces that remained of this trifling accident.

“This,” we remarked as we returned the papers, “belongs apparently to the milk-and-water School of Novels.” “You are quite right,” our friend replied, “and, in its present state, it is of course utterly unsaleable in the present day: we shall find, however, that the next stage of development will remove it into the strong-minded or Matter-of-Fact School.” After dipping into various acids, he again submitted it to us: it had now become the following:—

“The evening was of the ordinary character, barometer at ‘change’: a wind was getting up in the wood, and some rain was beginning to fall; a bad look-out for the farmers. A gentleman approached along the bridle-road, carrying a stout knobbed stick in his hand, and mounted on a serviceable nag, possibly worth some £40 or so; there was a settled business-like expression on the rider’s face, and he whistled as he rode; he seemed to be hunting for rhymes in his head, and at length repeated, in a satisfied tone, the following composition:—

“Well! So my offer was no go!
She might do worse, I told her so;
She was a fool to answer ‘No.’
“However, things are as they stood;
Nor would I have her if I could,
For there are plenty more as good.”

At this moment the horse set his foot in a hole, and rolled over; his rider rose with difficulty; he had sustained several bruises, and fractured two ribs; it was some time before he forgot that unlucky day.”

We returned this with the strongest expression of admiration, and requested that it might now be developed to the highest possible degree. Our friend readily consented, and shortly presented us with the result, which he informed us belonged to the Spasmodic or German School. We perused it with indescribable sensations of surprise and delight.

“The night was wildly tempestuous—a hurricane raved through the murky forest—furious torrents of rain lashed the groaning earth. With a headlong rush—down a precipitous mountain gorge—dashed a mounted horseman armed to the teeth—his horse bounded beneath him at a mad gallop, snorting fire from its distended nostrils as it flew. The rider’s knotted brows—rolling eye-balls—and clenched teeth—expressed the intense agony of his mind—weird visions loomed upon his burning brain—while with a mad yell he poured forth the torrent of his boiling passion:--

“Firebrands and daggers! hope hath fled!
To atoms dash the doubly dead!
My brain is fire—my heart is lead!
“Her soul is flint, and what am I?
Scorch’d by her fierce, relentless eye,
Nothingness is my destiny!”

There was a moment’s pause. Horror! his path ended in fathomless abyss— * * * A rush—a flash—a crash—all was over. Three drops of blood, two teeth, and a stirrup were all that remained to tell where the wild horseman met his doom.”

The young man was now recalled to consciousness, and shown the result of the workings of his mind: he instantly fainted away.

In the present infancy of the art we forbear from further comment on this wonderful discovery; but the mind reels as it contemplates the stupendous addition thus made to the powers of science.

Our friend concluded with various minor experiments, such as working up a passage of Wordsworth into strong, sterling poetry: the same experiment was tried on a passage of Byron, at our request, but the paper came out scorched and blistered all over by the fiery epithets thus produced.

As a concluding remark: could this art be applied (we put the question in the strictest confidence)—could it, we ask, be applied to the speeches in Parliament? It may be but a delusion of our heated imagination, but we will still cling fondly to the idea, and hope against hope.

Image Caption:
O. G. Rejlander (1813—1875)
Lewis Carroll with lens
London, 28 March 1863
Carte de visite albumen print
The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1987, AAH 220.
Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.