In the looking-glass world
Still she haunts me, phantomwise, Alice moving under skies Never seen by waking eyes. — from “A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis Carroll
Follow artist Maggie Taylor down the rabbit hole in her first exhibition at Photo-eye Gallery, A Tale Begun in Other Days, which is currently on view through Sept. 9. Taylor’s enchanting, surreal photomontages, some of them based on author Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, are a heady mix of the everyday and the fantastic. Taylor uses a combination of antique photographs, scanned objects, and digital manipulations to create narrative compositions that evoke a fairy-tale sensibility. On the cover is her 2015 archival pigment print Well then.
IN 1862, ten-year-old Alice Liddell asked Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who went by the pen name Lewis Carroll, to entertain her and her sisters with a story during a boat ride en route to a picnic lunch. Carroll made the young girl the protagonist in a series of adventures that begin with Alice falling down a rabbit hole. Thus, Alice’s
Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865, was born. Carroll, a close friend of the Liddell family, was also a photographer. Several portraits of Alice and her sisters are in his repertoire, much of which is now missing. But the stories of Alice that Carroll tells in the book and its sequel, Through the LookingGlass, have fired the imaginations of artists for more than 150 years.
Photography based on the stories, however, is rare. Looking at the imaginative landscapes of photographer Maggie Taylor, one can’t help but feel her work is perfectly matched with Carroll’s vision of a magical land that seems an inverse of our own, where characters with a penchant for riddles and puns celebrate their unbirthdays and time runs backwards. The images in Taylor’s current exhibition at Photo-eye Gallery, A Tale Begun in Other Days, were inspired in part by Through the Looking-Glass. Perhaps it was inevitable that Taylor would take on this work. “I did an Alice in Wonderland book a few years ago, and now I want to do the sequel,” she said. “Most of the images were done in the last two years.”
Taylor’s compositions are juxtapositions of her own photos (often landscapes captured with her cellphone’s camera) and scanned objects, including antique toys and old tintypes, arranged in Photoshop into vivid, sometimes whimsical and sometimes unsettling, images that appear to be culled from dreamscapes. Elements from vernacular photographs and studio portraits of anonymous individuals combine with more fantastic imagery, adding a sense of the real to her peculiar worlds. Characters in the artist’s images seem to behave with dispassionate interest — the effect of long exposures in the 19thcentury photographs she uses, with subjects who had to sit still for lengthy periods, avoiding most facial expressions — even while taking part in the most absurd situations. In a statement on Taylor’s website, she writes: “There is no one meaning for any of the images, rather they exist as a kind of visual riddle or open-ended poem, meant to be both playful and provocative.” Only the astute observer might catch all the references to Carroll’s writings, such as the title of When there’s anybody worth talking to, a magical scene of blossoms with human faces that evokes the second chapter of Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice encounters the Garden of Live Flowers:
“O Tiger-lily,” said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, “I wish you could talk!” “We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily: “when there’s anybody worth talking to.”
Other compositions depict more recognizable characters from Carroll’s story. “There are the iconic figures that people remember,” Taylor said. “I have Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Humpty Dumpty, and various kings and queens that are part of the Alice thing. But some are more my loose interpretations of Alice.” One image called Later, for example, is a still life of a bouquet of flowers. It’s one of the least fanciful works in the show, appearing as a traditional still life, but it does tie in to the Looking Glass theme. “People would not associate that with
Through the Looking-Glass, but it’s from a scene where the White Queen is describing to Alice what it’s like to live backwards in time. She lives her life backwards because she’s in the looking-glass world. There’s a corresponding image that’s also in the show called Now, where all the flowers are dead. It illustrates that Now is occurring before Later, and they’re all dead before they’re alive because that’s the way the White Queen perceives time.”
The figure of Alice herself, while not explicitly identified, also appears in Taylor’s work. It would soon be time shows her sitting with her back to the viewer, looking out over a patchwork of tilled land. “That’s from the very beginning of the book, when she’s just been told that it’s all a big chess game and she’s going to have to try to advance eight squares,” Taylor said. “She’s going to start out as a pawn, but one of the queens promises her in the end if she does everything right she’ll be a queen.” To Alice’s right, stretching in a long line through the landscape, are the chess pieces she will encounter. Above her head is a cloud in the shape of a crown — a promise, as yet insubstantial, of her coronation.
Heightening a sense of wistfulness and nostalgia that pervades Taylor’s work are playful touches that remind us of the images’ photographic origins (the artist’s Photoshop manipulations are extensive, and the use of actual photography is not always apparent), such as the discolored emulsion that borders several works. In an old daguerreotype or tintype, these would be hidden by the picture frame. The soft edges and the bleeding and blurring that the discolored emulsion lends each work fit with Taylor’s overall compositions.
The affinity between Taylor’s work and Carroll’s stories takes on personal resonance for her because she recognizes Carroll for his photography as well as his writing. The antique photographs she uses correspond to the time frame in which he was making images, an activity for which he earned accolades and met with some success. “Mine are all American girls and people,” Taylor said. “I buy them. I don’t like to work with images I can get over the internet. I like to actually own the images. The reason I buy them is that those particular images have something in them that sparks my imagination in some way. I try to be respectful of the fact that these are people I don’t really know anything about and they have no control over what’s being done with their image. They’re usually from about 1850 to 1870. And that’s one reason I got interested in Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.”
Above, Maggie Taylor: It would soon be time, 2016; left, And a good handsome shape it is, 2015; both archival pigment prints
Only on Thursdays, 2016, archival pigment print