PRINT November 1981


Slave to Beauty

TO STARVE ONESELF, TO ALLOW one’s hair to twine in stringy locks, to cast oneself in loincloth strapped and seemingly nailed to a cross, and to orchestrate the photographs of that crucifixion and later to exhibit them together in a frame as “The Seven Last Words of Christ” was to provoke mixed derision and acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. In July of 1898 an American photographer of romantic sensibility, F. Holland Day (with Baron Corvo, surely one of the most fascinating eccentrics of the century), a bookish man who throve on the examples of decadence and suffering that could be found in the lives of Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Honoré de Balzac, and John Keats, staged such an event at his estate in Norwood, Massachusetts—himself cast as Christ. According to his friend Frederick Evans, the English bookseller and photographer, the camera for this event was mounted with a mirror so that the agonized expressions could be rehearsed. Actors and assistants were on hand, some oppressed by the July humidity and the discomfort of elaborate costumes imported from Egypt. All of the exposures—some 250 of them—were made by Day using a bulb attachment and long shutter cable, as though making self-portraits. The artist as subject supreme, the artist as Christ in agony—what were Day’s true connections to the Passion and his subconscious motivations for directing himself in a crucifixion? Some, not all, of the answers are provided in an appealing biography of this strange man, Estelle Jussim’s Slave to Beauty.

Day’s life, as it emerges from the pages of Jussim’s arch scholarship and the whiplash of her prose, had an introspective and languid beginning, an abrupt turning, a meteoric ascendency to celebrity, and then a precipitous fall. The last sixteen years were spent almost in total seclusion in his bedroom, sealed off from the world in a self-styled cocoon, plagued by thunderous headaches, hypochondria, and depression. He amused himself with the pointless indulgences of a frumpy recluse: reading, correspondence, tracing genealogies, exulting in his acquired stash of letters written by Fanny Brawne to Keats’ sister. It is impossible not to imagine those years being haunted by corrosive and debilitating memories. For the brisk decade between 1895 and 1904, when he was in his 30s, he was a renowned photographer—a man talked about in England and in his own country, a favorite of photographic juries and salons, a publisher of odd and sensational books. But the tendency to bold risks that he took as a photographer of “undraped males” and of staged Christian and pagan rites, and as the publisher with Herbert Copeland of Wilde’s Salome, the erotica of Aubrey Beardsley, Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines, and the notorious illustrated quarterly, The Yellow Book, suddenly disappeared. Like a thoroughbred, Day broke in full stride; no longer enthralled by his mistress, the camera, he simply turned his back on the world of art and men.

Jussim details two compelling reasons for his sudden self-doubt and turning inward. During the decade of Day’s fame, Alfred Steiglitz, the photographic czar of America, seemed determined to undercut and ignore him. Steiglitz notified the Linked Ring (the early British photographic society) that the exhibition curated by Day titled “The New School of American Photography,” which included the work of photographers he himself would be touting for the next two decades, was of inferior quality, thereby nearly canceling that exhibition in England. He also sought to block Day’s inclusion in significant salon exhibitions. The other reason was a tragic fire that devoured his Boston studio on November 11, 1904, destroying two thousand negatives, countless numbers of finished prints, a treasure of Beardsley drawings and Corot paintings, plus exquisite and rare vases and porcelains. It took a few years for the psychological devastation of that fire truly to level him.

The inspiration of Day’s eccentricity was romantic and spiritual. It fed his art and transfigured him from a shy bibliomaniac into a host at medieval dinner parties, a dabbler in the occult, a photographer of flamboyant habits and bizarre tastes, a high-minded publicist of art. After the Rosicrucians, he linked suffering with the pursuit of beauty and spiritual perfection. Like Keats, he believed that the activity of art was the most exalted of human endeavors. From his other literary mentor, Balzac, who wore “poverty-inspired white monk’s robes,” and whom he aped with long Turkish or Arabic robes and Chinese silk shirts, Day adopted a sanction for idealized sensualism. Aware that Beardsley worked by the light of thirteen candles, that too become his custom. Even Day’s photographs were mounted peculiarly—“on varicolored tissue papers.”

It was through books that Day was led to photography. A passionate reader and collector, he was fond of “grangerizing” books. In illustrating his own copy of Balzac, Jussim reports that he collected “four hundred prints of the author’s friends and haunts, along with forty portraits of the man himself, photographic cartes-de-visite, and other memorabilia.” When he turned resolutely to the creation of his own photographs, it is no surprise to detect the influence of Keats’ romantic esthetic and Balzac’s absorption with sensuality and male beauty. A palpable literary input abides in most of his photographs. Often subjects use props like the crook and bowl in Nude Shepherd, 1897, or enact a moment from a narrative like The Prodigal, 1909. His late work with adolescent male nudes has a mythological basis, embued with lyricism and mysticism, but as Jussim signifies, these nudes are free of the blatant eroticism of Baron Wilhelm von Gloedon.

A man of delicacy and deep-rooted integrity, an intellectual of sober intensity, Day gave to others without the tentacles of expected gratitude. His kindhearted generosity, his loyalty and devotion to his friends, especially to the poet Louise Guiney (his confidant), his cousin Alvin Langdon Coburn whom he greatly encouraged in photography, Clarence White, Frederick Evans, Gertrude Käsebier, and Edward Steichen; his lofty estimation of even Alfred Stieglitz who may have dismissed him—these were the trademarks of his unobtrusive nature.

Yet, strangely, few gave to him. Something unimpeachable and genteel in him incited strong reactions or silence in others, notably in Alfred Stieglitz. In Jussim’s view, Stieglitz engaged in a battle of turf and curatorial power with Day—New York and the European connection versus Boston. It is amusing to watch Jussim hack away at the venerable and highly burnished image of Alfred Stieglitz. If she is sometimes over-zealous and captious in her attack on Stieglitz, she is also mischievous and entertaining. Her Stieglitz is conniving, shrewdly controlling his vast fiefdom (which extends to Europe) and bestowing favors and wreaths upon those he can manipulate. He is not easily crossed, and he fears the talent and aspirations of others. He collects and will later sell great art (the first photographs that were acquired for his collection being those of F. Holland Day), but to the astonishment of Edward Steichen he hangs cheap art reproductions in his home. He refuses to endorse original ideas of others, especially if they are not his formulations.

Stieglitz may have been wary of Day, but it is difficult to conceive of him as green with envy. Jussim asserts that in the art world of 1900 Day “was recognized as an equal to Stieglitz.” That, too, is hard to accept. It is quite possible that Stieglitz mistook Day as an ambitious and tenacious competitor, perhaps even projecting his own power needs upon the gentle and well-intentioned Day. It is possible too that Stieglitz’s decision to feature Day’s photographs in the first issue of Camera Work was a gesture of acknowledgment and reconciliation. Jussim laments Day’s refusal to supply the prints—believing that his omission from the now-famous anthology of commentary and art damaged his place in the history of photographs—but clearly Day was above compromise.

Perhaps Stieglitz unwittingly acted as the avenging father in Day’s life—withholding sanction and approval, distant, ambivalent, mercurial? Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, he had watched “the eternal footman” (the fire and Alfred Stieglitz) “hold his coat and snicker.” Perhaps that is why after the fire and the work with adolescent males in which there is so much mythologizing, Day simply closed his camera and darkroom. Without Stieglitz’s support, his efforts to rise from the ashes of his extraordinary loss were doomed. When he finally lost his idealized loves—through the deaths of Louise Guiney and his mother—he could no longer believe in his public identity. There was only one recourse, and that he exercised: to remain in his bedroom. Beauty, the fervid object of his pursuits, had sadly lost its allure and become a hollow romantic ideal.

Jussim regards Day as an “extraordinary genius with the camera.” That judgment seems extreme. She alertly demonstrates, though, that he is a fabulous subject for biography, a man who stood apart and alone. The illustrations she has chosen for the text—dust jackets of Day’s publishing firm, snapshots from the family album, the ribald drawings of Beardsley—enrich a sense of the decadent era, and of Day’s own eccentric preoccupations.

Although thousands of Day’s negatives were lost in the fire, there remains a representative body of work. A rich sampling appears at the back of Jussim’s book. Were each of his photographs extant today, my assessment would not change: Day’s perspective and eccentricity are more interesting than is his artistic achievement. He created a daring sequence of images with himself as Christ and a number of sensitive portraits. His work will stand with other talented photographers of the turn of the century: with that of Clarence White and Gertrude Käsebier. But it is not of first rank, perhaps as Jussim’s Stieglitz feared.

Kelly Wise


Estelle Jussim, Slave to Beauty: The Eccentric Life and Controversial Career of F. Holland Day (Boston: David R. Godine, 1981), 309 pages, 273 illustrations.