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House of Tudor 

Alice's adventures in pictureland; Arab on Radar's psycho-aural terrorism

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
In a photograph marked in time by its sepia tones, young Xie Kitchin stands against a bare wall. Her dark hair falls over her shoulders in careless, languid waves, framing her pale cheeks and somber eyes. Her thumb is tucked into the sash around her waist, imbuing her slender hand with a masculine, slightly martial attitude, which is echoed again in the stern set of her lips. Despite the whimsy of her Grecian-style frock and delicate sandals, Kitchin's expression is that of a world-weary general witnessing an unavoidable atrocity. Her steady gaze and slightly tilted head suggest that she watches the horror from a distance and from a great height, perhaps from a balcony whose balustrade is just beyond the camera's lens. That look is not one of a little girl, or rather, it's not how we choose to imagine the looks of little girls. In fact, the camera fully captures the depths of childhood -- the darkness and solemnity, the grave, impenetrable thoughts that rise between patches of sunlight and frills. This awareness is the graphic talent of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Long before the Oxford mathematics instructor began spinning yarns, he was taking pictures. Children were always his preferred subject: Julia Arnold looking at once coquettish and dispassionate while dangling her naked feet over her tangled bedclothes; Brook Kitchin appearing fierce and noble as he stands guard over his wan and sleeping brother; Hallam Tennyson, son of Lord Alfred, seeming like a foppish brute; and, of course, Alice Liddell with her straight black hair, slender shoulders, and serious eyes. Among the 3,000 images Dodgson generated over his 24 years behind the camera, the youngest Liddell girl features prominently. It was likely Dodgson's desire to photograph the child that led to his imagining of Alice's Adventures, which guaranteed his place in history.

In the company of adults, the once-ordained deacon and failed priest stammered uncontrollably, but among children Dodgson was entirely at ease. During leisurely rowboat rides from Oxford to Godstow, Dodgson would occupy the Liddell girls with stories loosely based on the caprices of the real Alice. After numerous photography sessions Dodgson finally succumbed to the pleas of his young muse, writing the stories down and giving her the manuscript. Eventually, at the prompting of Alice Liddell's parents and friends, Dodgson agreed to publish the book under a pseudonym.

In 1870 Dodgson took his final picture of Liddell. Typically, the photo captures the rich and complicated story behind the young woman's brooding eyes. One could easily imagine the lady in the picture echoing her literary namesake in her assertion that "one can't believe impossible things."

Whatever the story behind Dodgson's eyes, he created the greatest children's story every told and some of the most poignant photographs of his age. The new museum exhibit "Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll" gathers 76 of Dodgson's portraits, including the enigmatic images of Alice Liddell. An additional 100 images will be available in computer-generated virtual photo albums, styled after the fashion of the era. A perfectly eerie headset accompaniment would be Tom Waits' recently released Alice, a creaky eulogy of unrequited love inspired by Dodgson's obsession. Imagine Waits' lyrics "All that I can think of is Alice/ Arithmetic Arithmetock/ I turn the hands back on the clock" scraping through your brain as you gaze at the strange expressions of the children Dodgson most loved. "Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll" opens Saturday, Aug. 3, and runs through Nov. 10 at SFMOMA (151 Third St. at Mission). Admission is $6-10; call 357-4000. On Thursday, Aug. 8, filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's surreal masterpiece, Alice, screens in SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12-15.

Adept in the field of psycho-aural terrorism, Arab on Radar confirms the dangerous effects of small towns on bright minds. On its fourth LP, Yahweh or the Highway, the Rhode Island quartet pummels us with waves of distortion and electric-pop schizophrenia. The sounds pulse between our eyes like postmodern Chinese water torture, hypnotic and mildly painful. Eric Paul bleats and drones about sex and religion and sex and sex and sex -- "Pussy exhaust, not whooping cough/ Mating season not cock teasing," go the lyrics to one number -- with songs titled "Semen on the Mount," "God Is Dad," "Father, Son, and the Goalie Post." We scoff, thinking we are immune, but studies show that many people subjected to Arab on Radar never fully recover, their brains changed forever, realizing that it's more exciting to join the musicians than it is to fight them. Arab on Radar supports the Locust during the Oops! Tour on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 924 Gilman in Berkeley with Lightning Bolt and Hella opening at 5 p.m. Tickets are $5; call (510) 525-9926. The tour also stops at Slim's on Monday, Aug. 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door; call 522-0333.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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