F. Holland Day

ALFRED STIEGLITZ, EDWARD STEICHEN, AND JULIA MARGARET CAMERON have all had large exhibitions in the last few years. So why not F. Holland Day? F. Holland who?

Fred Holland Day was born in Boston in 1864, the same year as Stieglitz. Like Cameron, Day took intense, dreamy portraits of his friends and their children. Like Stieglitz and Steichen, he became one of the leading pictorialists, or “fuzzy-wuzzies,” as Edward Weston once called them—those turn-of-the-century photographers who tried to emulate painting through their blurry photographs of picturesque tableaux. So how is it that Stieglitz, Steichen, and Cameron are stars, while Day remains obscure?

Stieglitz himself is partly to blame. In 1899, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston promised Day that he could mount a showcase of American photographs (including some of his own) if he secured an established organization to back him. Day asked Stieglitz for help, but Stieglitz, sensing a rival, refused. The exhibition, “The New School of American Photography,” went to London and Paris but was never shown in the United States. Thus Stieglitz cooked Day's goose.

A century later, the MFA is making it up to Day with “Art and the Camera: The Photographs of F. Holland Day,” curated by the museum's Anne E. Havinga and Pamela Roberts of the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England. The show comprises 125 of Day's photographs from 1895 to 1912, including his outrageous self-portraits as an emaciated Christ and his hazy pictures of his friends and their children decked out as African emperors, Greek gods, saints, and sailors. (All the guests to his house in Maine were asked to wear sailor suits.) The exhibition also includes some of the props Day used, from a crown of thorns to a crude homemade lyre.

Some of Day's photographs could certainly be called pictorialist. A young Lebanese boy Day mentored, Kahlil Gibran (yes, the future author of The Prophet), appears as a scholar and a sheik. J. Alexandre Skeete, a black art student who looks a lot like a young Louis Armstrong, posed as an Ethiopian monarch in a crown, as “Nubia” in a toga, and as “Ebony” on a leopard skin hugging his knees while a white classical statuette, “Ivory,” stands by.

But in retrospect, Day seems not so much a pictorialist as what one might call a theatricalist. He belongs in the ranks of Hippolyte Bayard (who did portraits of himself as a drowned man), the Countess de Castiglione (who had portraits taken of herself in every role she could think of), and, almost a century later, Cindy Sherman. He used his and his friends' bodies to act out overwrought hothouse dramas. What makes Day's pictures seem fresh now is their wanton sublimation an their self-conscious theatricality.

The 1896 photograph The Marble Faun, whose title refers to a Hawthorne novel, shows a pale nude boy coyly turning his hip toward us and fingering his flute. The picture verges on softcore porn. And there is Hypnos, c. 1896-97, a photograph of a boy with his eyes shut inhaling the scent of a wire poppy.

The most bizarre photographs in the show are Day's ambitious attempts to portray himself as Christ. He starved himself and, for some of the pictures, nailed himself to a cross (or so it looks). He tried out many suffering faces before settling on the images for The Seven Words, 1898, a lineup of seven self-portraits as Jesus topped by a fake entablature inscribed with Christ's dying words. In Day's time these portraits aroused some protest. To contemporary eyes they have a kind of campy, self-conscious appeal that seems to anticipate the work of a host of present-day artists, such as Pierre et Gilles, McDermott and McGough, and Gilbert and George.

In 1904, Day's Boston studio burned down and most of his negatives and prints were destroyed. The fire not only cleaned out his life's work but also, it seems, burned through some of the thick romantic airs in his photography.

A few months after the fire, Day traveled to Virginia and photographed students at the Hampton Institute, one of the first black trade schools in America, and its affiliated grade school. These are his most modern pictures. Head of a Girl, 1905, shows a languid, placid face cropped in a radically asymmetrical way. Julius Caesar Augustus, 1905 shows a boy's incipient smile echoed by the thin white line of his collar. A photograph taken six years later of David Leung, an Asian boy beaming in his sailor suit, is totally unaffected.

Day did not give up the theatrics entirely. Instead he reserved them for certain beloved subjects, in particular a young shoe-shine boy named Nicola Giancola. In 1906, Nicola appears as Saint Sebastian, a sulky boy, with his head tossed back and his arms bound to a tree with a decidedly modern rope: as the “Storm God” throwing a spear; as Orpheus emerging from a cave with a lyre; and as an insolent youth in a winged hat with one nipple showing. What Edwin Becker, curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, writes in the catalogue about Hypnos applies here too: The “image has been carefully cropped, so that a nipple is just delicately visible at the lower die.” The nipple is the point of the picture. The mythology is just a decoy.

The lyres, flutes, caves, and spears serve as veils at once hiding and revealing the object of Day's attention: the young male body. In Day's time, the decoys worked. His nudes were praised by contemporary critics for their modesty. Today the props and costumes seem more the thing. Those sailor suits weren't for nothing. Day's ship has come in.

“Art and the Camera: The Photographs of F. Holland Day” remains on view in Boston until Mar. 25; it travels to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Apr. 20–June 24, and the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, July 18, Sept. 30.

Sarah Boxer writes on photography for the New York Times.