F. Holland Day, Imperial Masculinity, and the Intimacy of Photography

Shawn Michelle Smith reflects on F. Holland Day’s exotic look and intimate looking

In the spring of 1901, F. Holland Day arrived unannounced at Frederick Evans’s studio in London, wearing a burnoose.  Evans invited him in to be photographed, and the two collaborated in making a series of intimate portraits of Day in Algerian dress.[i]  The portraits correspond to the height of Day’s international prominence as promoter and practitioner of the New American School of photography, a movement devoted to establishing photography as an art form through Pictorialist aesthetics.  After receiving mixed reviews in London, Day’s New American School exhibition was a huge success at the Photo-Club of Paris in the spring of 1901.  The exhibition showcased the work of Clarence White, Edward Steichen, and Day himself, among others, and included images from Day’s sacred series and his so-called “Nubian” series.  After the exhibition closed in Paris, Day and his young cousin, Alvin Langdon Coburn (who had several images in the show), traveled to Algiers.  As Estelle Jussim and Patricia Fanning tell the story, in Algeria, “Day and Coburn romped about in exotic costumes,”[ii] and upon their return to Paris, Day continued to go out in his “Arab togs.”[iii]

Day was well known for his “exotic” dress and costuming; reviews of his work often included reviews of Day himself and his eccentric habits of dress.  In this sense, it is not surprising that he would have been intrigued by Algerian trappings.  But I would like to suggest that the Algerian robes he collected had particular racial and gender associations that interested Day beyond their function as yet another form of “exotic dress up.”  As Kristin Hoganson explains in her discussion of the international circuits of American fashion at the turn of the century, for American women to participate in Parisian fashion was also to participate in racialized class distinctions that secured one’s civilized (and modern) status.[iv]  Although dressing in the height of Parisian fashion usually meant distinguishing one’s self (and one’s whiteness) from colonized peoples and their picturesque, folk costumes,[v] adopting elements of exotic dress might also mark one’s associations with imperial power.  For the fashionable American woman, “donning burnoose draperies meant donning the trappings of European imperialism.”[vi]  In this sense, we might say that dressing in Arab clothing allowed Day to participate imaginatively in French imperialism.

The robes also allowed him to participate imaginatively in an Orientalized Islamic masculinity.  As Timothy Marr has argued, several decades before Day made his trip to Algeria, American travelers in the Islamic east (deemed “howadji”) developed a romance of oriental masculinity focused on male liberty and patriarchal power associated with the harem.[vii]  Indeed, according to Malek Alloula, the harem was the central figure of an erotic Orientalist fantasy.[viii]  It was the intimate social structure that most obviously challenged Western ideas of heterosexual monogamy.  American men traveling in Islamic countries adopted Arab dress to signal their claim on an islamicized masculinity; their garb symbolized their male privilege and masculine liberation.  Travel writers in the early to mid-nineteenth century celebrated “‘the freedom from restraint,’” and from the “conventional confinements of race, religion, and gender”[ix] that they purported to experience in the Near East.[x]  Elsewhere I have sought to establish Day’s queer photographic practice,[xi] and here I would like to suggest that although Day may not have been interested in the specific patriarchal privileges of the harem, he might have enjoyed the power to transgress conventional Western ideas about gender.  The very idea of another model of masculinity may have offered Day a signifying space through which to imagine and perform his own alternative masculinity.

Fears about the kind of sexual encounters that might be had in foreign lands guided colonial regulations on intimate contact.  As Ann Stoler has taught us, intimate relations are a key site of colonial power and resistance, the place where colonial relations and racial distinctions are enacted and formed.  In the Dutch colonial context in Java that she has studied, inter-racial heterosexual relations of concubinage were historically condoned to dissuade European men from the more dangerous liaisons they might make with prostitutes in brothels — or with native men.[xii]  In other words, colonial regulations regarding inter-racial heterosexual relations implicitly regulated homosexual relations as well.  Homosexual liaisons were the shadow discourse of colonial regulations on inter-racial heterosexual sex.

Day clearly enjoyed the theatricality of his racialized masculine performance, and its multi-layered connotations, walking the streets of Paris and London in his burnoose.  But he also performed more quietly and intimately for Evans’s camera in the private space of Evans’s studio.  I would like to think further about the intimacy of Day’s photographic encounters, both in front of and behind the camera, focusing especially on the intimate looking relations he established with fellow photographers Evans and Coburn.

Day photographed on his trip to Algiers, experimenting with a new Dallmeyer lens that secured the soft focus that he preferred.[xiii]  A photograph of a street in Algiers presents a kind of cocoon extending back toward a diffuse light.  The hood of a figure standing part way up the stepped path echoes the pointed shape of the roofs that converge overhead.  A portrait of an Algerian man shows him seated on a tiled wall, his interlocking fingers mirroring his crossed legs and bare feet.  He looks up, but it is hard to tell at what exactly.  Do his eyes meet those of the photographer?  The scene is surely posed, requiring the man’s consent, as Day would have used his large format camera and tripod, and the man is quite tightly framed.  There is intimacy in proximity here, but not in a shared gaze.  The man wears robes remarkably like those that Day would adopt.

In Frederick Evans’s studio, Day stands looking back at the photographer who was also a friend (1901).  His head is wrapped like that of the Algerian man who was his own photographic subject.  But here Day stands, pulling back his cloak to reveal the garments he wears underneath.  His eyes half closed and heavy lidded, he looks dreamily back at his colleague and friend.

Day was interested in Evans’s look, and in Evans looking at him.  The previous year (1900) he made a remarkable photograph of Evans gazing upon a photograph, capturing him from behind, hands clasped in the drapery of his loose cape.  Evans seems to emerge out of the dark atmosphere with which he almost entirely blends, as if he has been conjured out of thin air to gaze upon the small light print that hangs before him at eye level.  It is a photograph of Day himself, posed as the ecstatic Christ, a tightly framed headshot of Day wearing a crown of thorns, head thrown back in (erotic) anguish.  Evans has come in close to view the image in the penumbra.  The doubling of looks and the staging of the photographic gaze is remarkable.  Day photographs Evans gazing upon a photograph of Day.

Day would also photograph and be photographed by his young traveling companion.  In a portrait of Coburn seated at his desk, the young man looks back solemnly at the older photographer, his cousin and mentor (1900).  His oversized jacket exaggerates his slightness.  The photograph is taken at a surprising remove.  A large expanse of carpet dominates the bottom half of the image.  The distance is inexplicable and does not accord with Day’s typical framing.  It seems to press Coburn back toward the wall of photographs, flattening him into a kind of photographic artifact.  (Gertrude Kasebier’s Blessed Art Thou among Women, 1899, is clearly visible propped at the edge of the desk.)

Coburn’s portrait of Day is a much more intimate scene, and one that remarkably brings the dark recesses of photography itself into view (1900).  Coburn’s photograph literally sheds light on Day’s darkroom, exposing that which usually remains unseen – the process through which photographic prints are made.  Standing, with his trays of chemicals at his feet, Day looks back over his shoulder at Coburn.  Day’s long dark robes mimic the drapes that shield his darkroom from exposure, and his hand reaches out as if to pull them closed again.  On the right side of the photograph the telltale swirls of a fingerprint mark the image with Coburn’s touch, inscribing his own chemically stained imprint on this photograph about printing.  Once again, the intimacy with which the photographers regard one another and expose their shared process is remarkably reflexive.

Coburn’s portrait of Day draws our attention closely to the photographic printing process.  Therefore we might consider further the platinum process that Evans, Day, and Coburn all favored.  There is something intimate about the process itself.  As we have seen, the printing takes place in a dark room.  Beyond that, however, platinum, unlike silver gelatin, seeps into the paper on which it is painted, merging photographic image with paper fiber.  (It does not have the gelatin that holds light-sensitive particles on the surface of the paper as in the silver gelatin process.)  This blending and merging has a kind of promiscuity about it.  Images become material, and their blending lends them a further diffuseness as the fibers of the paper soften hard lines and edges.  (The platinum process was so central to Day’s aesthetic that he famously gave up photography after platinum became scarce in World War I.[xiv])

Day would use his Algerian robes as props several years later, wrapping the head of his favorite model, Nicola Giancola, in a kind of turban (c. 1907).  Here the youth who often posed nude for Day stands, leaning against a rough support and looking away from the camera, his robe slipping off his right shoulder to reveal his chest.  Tightly framed, the photograph is intimate and erotic; it reveals and makes explicit the tensions cloaked in the earlier portraits of Day.

[i] Patricia J. Fanning, Through an Uncommon Lens:  The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2008) 110.

[ii] Estelle Jussim, Slave to Beauty:  The Eccentric Life and Controversial Career of F. Holland Day, Photographer, Publisher, Aesthete (Boston:  David R. Godine, 1981) 156-57.

[iii] Patricia J. Fanning 131.

[iv] Kristin L. Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium:  The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) 80, 90.

[v] Hoganson 80.

[vi] Hoganson 94.

[vii] Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006) 265.

[viii] Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, trans. Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1986) 3.

[ix] Marr, describing Bayard Taylor’s correspondence from Egypt with his Boston editor, James Ticknor Fields (The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism 269).

[x] John Lloyd Stephens quoted in Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, page 268.

[xi] See my chapter “Photography Between Desire and Grief:  Roland Barthes and F. Holland Day,” in Feeling Photography, eds. Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu (Durham:  Duke University Press, forthcoming), and chapter two, “The Politics of Pictorialism:  Another Look at F. Holland Day,” in At the Edge of Sight:  Photography and the Unseen (Durham:  Duke University Press, forthcoming).

[xii] Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power:  Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2002) 2, 48, 212.

[xiii] Jussim 154-55.

[xiv] Jussim 197.


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One response to “F. Holland Day, Imperial Masculinity, and the Intimacy of Photography”

  1. Camara Dia Holloway says :

    Reblogged this on Camara Dia Holloway and commented:
    Prepping a talk on F. Holland Day for a symposium. Here is my co-panelist, Shawn Michelle Smith’s take on him.

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