from Hiawatha’s Photographing
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
First, a piece of glass he coated
With collodion, and plunged it
In a bath of lunar caustic
Carefully dissolved in water –
There he left it certain minutes.
Secondly, my Hiawatha
Made with cunning hand a mixture
Of the acid pyrro-gallic,
And of glacial-acetic,
And of alcohol and water
This developed all the picture.
Finally, he fixed each picture
With a saturate solution
Which was made of hyposulphite
Which, again, was made of soda.
(Very difficult the name is
For a metre like the present
But periphrasis has done it.)
All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.
– Lewis Carroll
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford, but of course is much better known by his literary pen-name Lewis Carroll. He was also an enthusiastic amateur in the early days of photography, taking portraits of, among others, Tennyson and Faraday, as well as the famous ones of Alice Liddell.
“Hiawatha’s Photographing” is a hilarious parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Lines like
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
practically invite parody, and Carroll introduces his poem by writing ‘any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha”.’ The rigid trochaic tetrametre can feel slightly unnatural in English – the stresses fall on the odd syllables, e.g. ‘Fròm his shòulder Hìawàtha / Tòok the càmerà of ròsewood’, and it does become easy running, almost hypnotically regular, once you get used to it.
Photography used to be complicated chemical process, instead of a complicated but invisible electronic process, and photographers carried a kit of chemicals to prepare the glass plates. Carroll’s precise description of the wet collodion process is brilliant and makes it sound truly awful. (Lunar caustic is an old name for silver nitrate, which is what reacts with light to form the image.) Dodgson’s case still exists and is displayed in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which was an exciting surprise for me when I first visited there.
The excerpt above is from the beginning of the poem, which goes on to describe Hiawatha’s problems dealing with his subjects, who give typically unhelpful suggestions so each time ‘the picture failed completely’. You can listen to the full poem at YouTube.