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By Brian Liddy on

Hidden in plain sight: Backdrops and drapery in photography

Backdrops and drapery have been used for as long as photographers have been taking photographs, but one of the strangest uses was by Lewis Carroll in 1865.

I love the way Chris Harrison used backdrops and drapery to dramatic effect in his exhibition Copper Horses. He used a sheet of canvas to hide parts of the machine he was photographing which he didn’t want us to see. That way he broke the machine down to fragments.

From Copper Horses, National Media Museum, Bradford © Chris Harrison
From Copper Horses © Chris Harrison

The result is a complex visual metaphor for his thoughts and feelings about his relationship with his father and the many people who work hard to make ends meet in British industry.

From Copper Horses, National Media Museum, Bradford © Chris Harrison
From Copper Horses © Chris Harrison

As devices, backdrops and drapery have been used for as long as photographers have been taking photographs, as a fine bit of drapery gives an artistic air to the image.

19th century studio portrait photographers used painted canvas backdrops to mimic parlour settings in two dimensions, while a plain, austere backdrop focused attention on the sitter.

When used properly we shouldn’t be conscious a backdrop is in use, but sometimes they pique my interest. What’s behind the backdrop? Something the photographer didn’t want me to see? Whatever it is, I want to see it.

From Copper Horses, National Media Museum, Bradford © Chris Harrison
From Copper Horses © Chris Harrison

There are hosts of photographs in our collection with backdrops and drapery, but one of the strangest uses was by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898).

Better known as the author Lewis Carroll, he took these photographs of the Wilson Todd children at Croft Rectory (North Yorkshire) in September 1865.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Wilson Todd, September 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Wilson Todd, September 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson © Science Museum Group collection

He posed Lizzie, William and Aileen individually against the bough of a tree, but why he decided to block out the garden beyond with a plain backdrop is a mystery. Why place the tree trunk so boldly in the composition only for it to be shrouded and divorced from its natural garden setting?

William Phillip Wilson Todd, September 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
William Phillip Wilson Todd, September 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson © Science Museum Group collection

Maybe there’s no mystery. Maybe Carroll’s sole intention was to picture the children beside an interesting tree trunk. By juxtaposing the gnarled trunk with the plain backdrop he simplifies the composition and we give the children (and the trunk) more attention.

Aileen Wilson Todd, September 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Aileen Wilson Todd, September 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson © Science Museum Group collection

But a closer look doesn’t explain why Carroll photographed Aileen up a stepladder, at a greater height than her siblings.

21 comments on “Hidden in plain sight: Backdrops and drapery in photography

  1. Interesting picture, the last one. Perhaps a very old-fashioned modern picture with a modern message (probably not intended when the original picture was taken) or was it?

    A picture of a child against the natural tree trunk, a hint of nature and then the child standing on the man-made step ladder of wood, perhaps from that very same kind of tree. A subtle picture of what man does to the environment sometimes for non-sensicle purposes. The child needs the step ladder today to climb the trees (safety always in mind for some), and long ago, the child would have simply climbed the tree (without the step ladder).

    Yes, I know. It’s only a picture of a child and a stepladder and a tree.

  2. A very interesting read, yeah, at times I’ve wondered, how did that backdrop come to be, how did it happen, where did it spring from, etc.,

  3. Lewis Carroll may have desired to anthropomorphize the tree trunk. Notice that in the image with Lizzie, parallel to her eyes, is the “eye” of the trunk. She has a pleasant expression and one of interest in her expression. She may be listening to the tree’s current story. Notice her hand is near the “mouth” of the tree which is immediately below the three “nostrils” of the tree (everyone knows that a tree needs to breathe!).
    His image of William has the boy looking out, yet leaning against the tree. He is less introspective than Lizzie, yet, is still in communication with the tree (nature), appreciates it, but, from a masculine point of view may be looking for something that the tree desires him to explore. The last image, that of Aileen, has her posed on a ladder. This may be the “ladder of ascent,” it may be a spiritual ascent or a natural ascent, yet, Carroll desires to show her as more advanced in her understanding of what the tree has to offer her. She has her shoulder against the tree, as well as her head. Thus, she is grounded yet spiritually connected in more than just a rational way. The noetic, or as the Greeks would say “the nous” is in operation here. Thanks for reading this analysis and giving me the opportunity to play with the interpretation. Too bad he didn’t include a rabbit!

  4. Maybe the concentration of the viewer is then on the subject and the object? The tree trunk has look of an elephant to it, the big massive knot/branch beginning bit as the eye and of course the lower trunk being….the elephant trunk.
    Also the edges and corners of those photographs look really interesting – are they parts that would have been beginning to curl over or disintegrate/age/get worn?

  5. It seems as if the photographer strategically takes a picture to convey a message.

    The backdrop hides everything that is insignifcant to his message– or in other words gets in the way of his message.

    Your wrote how he takes pictures of things that reminded him of his father and the working conditions he endured in the industry.

    From the pictures I assume he worked in a factory.

    A simplistic example of his thoughts as why he uses backdrops is in the boots picture– boots probably worn by factory workers. The boots are dirty, worn down, and look kind of rusty. The backdrop is added to have the looker focus on the boots.

    The message to me screams, “these are boots worn by a factory worker. They don’t get paid well so they have to wear the same boots for years. Despite being worn-down and old, you can tell the boots were well taken care of. They also have to endure horrible conditions, which is why they are in such horrible condition. These boots are an example of what life is like in the industry.”

    I would guess that the pictures of the tree branch and the children with the added backdrop to convey to the reader, focus on the children and the branch. But metaphorically speaking, perhaps he is saying, “this tree here and this child are both living creatures.”

    The child sitting on a small ladder metaphically speaks, “this girl here shares the same life as this tree here. This ladder here comes made from a tree and was brought here from a factory nearby. This girl when she grows up will have to climb this ladder in a factory…” And we know that the factory conditions are horrible so we can conclude he is finishing saying, “despite being alive, they will endure harsh conditions in these factories.

    As you can see they are clean and dressed, it only adds to the affect that they will be treated horribly.

    That is what I got from these pictures. Thanks for sharing. Sorry for a long comment.

  6. “He posed Lizzie, William and Aileen individually against the bough of a tree, but why he decided to block out the garden beyond with a plain backdrop is a mystery. ”
    Perhaps because he knew it would pique the interest of people like you who would republish his work…

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