'Alice in Wonderland' And Photo Cut-Ups at the Met

I look at "Playing with Pictures," the small exhibition of Victorian photo-collage tucked in the recesses of the Metropolitan Museum, and I see the participatory future... as well as the remote past, not to mention the present moment, as a new-fangled manifestation of photo-graphic impurity and Victorian fantasy, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland continues to dominate the US box office.

The home-made cut-and-paste photo albums assembled by the upper-class British ladies of the 1860s and 1870s not only date from the age of Alice -- first published, with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, in 1865 -- but represent a kindred form of antic amateur art. Recontextualizing the equivalent of family snapshots in geometric patterns or fantastic landscapes, these albums deploy a recognizably Wonderlandian iconography of playing cards, croquet matches, and manicured gardens -- as well as an even more drastic appreciation for severed heads and dramatic shifts in scale. Giant flowers, monstrous butterflies, colossal hummingbirds abound; children can be found riding on frogs or perched on toadstools.

Photography was only a few decades old (and the introduction of cheap multiple portraits quite recent) when these Victorian cut-ups, seeking to amuse family and friends, adopted a post-photographic attitude -- taking mechanically reproduced images as raw material and in that way anticipating a sizeable chunk of 20th century avant-gardism (photo-montage, surrealist juxtaposition, book art, collage animation, Joseph Cornell, image appropriation) as well as the Photoshopped portraits and CGI-enriched or fan-improved movies of the 21st century.

As the albums are not just objects but narratives, the Met has digitally scanned a number that may be flipped through on a computer screen. The most elaborate of these prophesies the computer games associated with the latest Alice by incorporating the Bouverie family into Tenniel's Wonderland -- or is it vice versa? In either case, it suggests that the new theme park will be virtual.


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