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.
More:Film and TV