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.
A note from Elspeth Brown on the study of positive affects in producing commodity relations.
Several of us involved with The Photographic Situation—myself, Thy Phu, Shawn Michelle Smith, and Ann Cvetkovich—have just returned from the American Studies Association annual meeting in Puerto Rico, where we collaborated with Laura Wexler on a roundtable concerning ‘photography, affect, and empire.’ In my short presentation, I wanted to think through how positive affects—love, longing, desire—are central to the history of U.S. market empires, and the role photography has played in producing the “look of love” in commodity relations. A lot of the excellent writing on affect and photography has focused on negative affects and/or political violence, such as Thy’s work on the S-21 photographs, Shawn’s work on lynching, Laura’s work on U.S. imperialism in the Phillipines, or Ann’s recent work on depression. This work is inspirational and indispensable. Yet the history of the U.S. has been, historically, as much about market hegemony as it has been about military violence and the colonization of peoples. For an empire built on market relations more than on sovereignty, U.S. business culture has required a different affective register, one based on the positive affects of desire, longing, and aspiration, as well as the violence of military rule. So in my ten minutes, I wanted to highlight the dystopic side of the ‘positive affects’ in producing and sustaining U.S. market empires, and the essential role photography has played in smuggling in imperial market relations through the Trojan horse of commodity pleasure.
And to complicate my scenario still further, I want to think about how queer relationality has been central to the production and maintenance of U.S. market empires. My examples are drawn from the history of fashion photography, which has been a queer industry since Baron de Meyer was hired as the first paid staff photographer for Conde Nast in 1917. Specifically, in the ASA presentation, I focused on the work of George Platt Lynes in the late 1930s and 1940s, when he was making two main bodies of work: fashion photographs for Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar, and gay male nudes for private circulation among friends and queer kinship networks. My presentation concerned the relationship between these two sets of images, in the effort to think though the dystopic aspects of the positive affects when tied to strategies of soft empire: the international garment trade.
In September, Stephen Mayes, director of VII Photo Agency, spoke at our Photographic Situation workshop in Toronto on the unfixing of photography in the age of the Smartphone. Stephen elaborates on the experiential quality of the new fluid image here, in an interview with Wired magazine’s Pete Brook.
Thy Phu and Sarah Parsons discuss the visual and political economies exposed by recent photographs of Kate Middleton and Prince Harry.
Thy Phu: A few weeks ago, tongues wagged widely in response to the publication of photos of a topless Kate Middleton, taken while vacationing with her husband in a privately rented house in France. The story, not to mention the paparazzi photos, quickly went viral. This is only the latest controversy involving cameras whose lenses are increasingly powerful and pervasive.
Buckingham Palace sent their lawyers after Closer, the French magazine which first published the photos. These lawyers argued that, because the paparazzi invaded Middleton’s privacy, the photos should not publicly circulate. But the role of the camera in mediating the public and the private is far more complicated than this summary suggests.
In your research, Sarah, you point out that the camera has a surprising relationship to the concept of privacy. You note that a landmark article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, titled “The Right to Privacy”(1890), reveals that rather than simply breaching privacy, photography invented our present understanding of privacy. The tensions between private and public arose because of a problem of photography generated by the 1884 release of Eastman Kodak’s first handheld camera.
Warren and Brandeis pointed to the then-recent case of the popular singer and actress Marion Manola, who was photographed during a performance on Broadway. The role she was playing at the time required her to wear tights that exposed her legs. She promptly sued for an injunction against the use of the photograph, which the theatre manager wanted to use for advertising purposes. Manola argued, and Warren and Brandeis agreed, that to circulate images from this professional space in newspapers, on posters, or for sale in shops was to invade the domain of her private persona.
There are interesting parallels between the case involving Manola’s leg and the more recent example of Middleton’s breasts. Both express concern for protecting reputation and female virtue–Will was reportedly livid when he heard that the photos of his wife were circulating.
A different contrast, between Manola and Middleton, is also interesting. Whereas the illicit photos of Manolo were taken in a commercial and semi-public space–rather than the domestic space that we usually think of as the domain of the private–the latter photos were taken precisely because a prying lens intruded into a private compound. In other words, Buckingham Palace wouldn’t have a case if Kate had cavorted topless, as some Europeans do, on a public beach.
What’s changed, from the turn of the last century to now, is the shrinking of places where we can assume our privacy can be protected. Today, it seems that we can’t protect our privacy, at least in the face of a camera that pries into our lives, unless we can prove that this intrusion breaches our private spaces.
Social media sites have obscured the distinction between public and private spaces still further. My private photos (of course, none of which are remotely risqué) are not owned solely by me. By using sites such as Facebook, I’ve ceded ownership to this publicly traded corporation, although they keep promising me they won’t use them in ways I would not approve. I’m starting to worry about my privacy even in the sanctity of my own home! There’s now an inverse relationship between the camera and privacy: although lenses are now longer, the spaces in which our privacy is protected are shorter.
In your own essay, “Privacy, photography, and the art defense” (forthcoming in 2013), you point out that in the United States, everything is up for grabs when it occurs in public spaces. That is, each and every one of us is vulnerable to public scrutiny—and to anyone wanting to take a photo—when you appear out in public. This is a frightening and, frankly, depressing vision you draw. Sarah, how does this shrinking view of privacy help explain the royal photographs?
Sarah Parsons: The case of the topless photos of Middleton is complicated by the fact that they were taken in France where legal conceptions of privacy and control of one’s image are strongly enshrined in law. In the US, the only place individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy is behind closed doors, preferably their own. Photographs that use telescopic lenses to pry into windows are unseemly, but photographing outdoor spaces on private property would be hard to prosecute. It may seem greatly unfair to those who crave the sun and privacy in equal measure, but it is difficult to prevent outdoor spaces from being visible whether from a higher vantage point or a viewing device.
Thy: Only a short while before the topless photos surfaced, the Palace was rocked by another scandal involving photos, this time of a naked Prince Harry behaving in way that tabloids were quick to describe as un-princely. What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas… but that was before everyone, not to mention their pool party friends, owned a smartphone.
That the Palace was keen to preserve Middleton’s modest feminine image is obvious in the rush of lawyers to suppress the topless photos in Closer. Yet these very lawyers did not move to suppress circulation of her brother-in-law’s embarrassing photos. Rather, British tabloids published them, whereas they tactfully–and dutifully–refrained from publishing images of Middleton. The Leveson Inquiry into press standards likely plays a large role in this self-censoring, as papers and magazines scurry to avoid harsh crackdowns. Sarah, what are the chief differences between these two sets of photos, and how would you account for these different responses?
Sarah: There seem to be key differences in the way the images came about as well as the visual economy in which they circulate. Although the palace claims that both royals were in private spaces where they had expectations of privacy, Harry invited his photographer into that private space. When his crack security squad failed to confiscate cell phones upon his guests’ entry to the hotel suite, Harry basically surrendered that expectation.
Kate’s pictures fit neatly into a defined category: beautiful topless woman. Even the more recent, grainier though revealing images of her body as she changes bathing suits are not sexual per se. They might be sexualized by their voyeuristic quality and their presentation of nubile breasts, but they do not depict Kate engaging in anything other than subdued, if ill-advised, leisure with her husband. In a sense the fuss being made about privacy by the Palace and others is a direct result of the banality of the images, of the fact that they sit comfortably with the image we have been sold of Kate as this pretty, well-behaved, normal upper-class girl, who is also hip enough to partake of elite European norms like skiing in Gstaad and sunning in Provence.
Then again, part of Will’s outrage and anger, which was shared by many in the UK, stems from bitter memories of the fraught relationship between the paparazzi and another princess, Diana. Some still blame the paparazzi for her untimely death, and the shadow of this tragedy no doubt tinges today’s reception of another group of “princess photos.” Although in the 1980s and 1990s, UK newspapers would have clamored for risqué images of the princess, nowadays it seems unthinkable for many of them to publish such images. Indeed, the editor of the Irish Daily Star was suspended for breaking rank and publishing the Middleton photos.
Contrast this with hot-Harry’s Vegas photos. The two rather fuzzy cell phone photos sold to the press both feature a fully nude prince, but they are actually quite different in ways that seem to have garnered little discussion. In one, he stands cupping his crown jewels (a benign, almost prudish gesture) while a naked young woman snuggles behind him. The other photo has been widely interpreted as picturing Harry locking his naked female companion in a bear hug while giving the photographer a prime rear-end view. But, what makes us read this collectively as good-natured, if drunken, revelry? Is it the presence of a camera and thus another person that causes us to see this as romp rather than a mutually satisfactory or forced sex act? Apparently, in the UK these photos were viewed as rather a harmless, if unseemly, case of a boys being boys.
Whether or not Harry is giving her the business from behind is not really my concern. The point here is that these photos of Harry and of Kate enter systems of looking, and expectations about class and gender, that shape what we see and how we interpret what we see. Although the Palace is not as keen on Harry’s public reputation as they are on Kate’s, the discussion around these photographs of the “Party Prince” do as little to alter his reputation as Kate’s images. In both cases, the Palace did ask the British press not to publish. The tabloids complied in Kate’s case, but not in Harry’s. (Oddly, the limit of representation in these photos concerns Harry. Though his photos don’t present full frontal nudity, neither do they disclose a fully rear view: the picture is universally circulated with a prudish patch discretely covering his butt crack.)
Thy: I’m glad that you raise the point about the graininess of these covertly taken photographs. It’s obvious that their value lies not in the quality of the images themselves, but rather in the currency of their subject–as you put it in a visual economy. Like you, I find it fascinating that these two recent cases tellingly reveal the importance of protecting Kate’s reputation, more than Harry’s, for the Palace, likely as part of the monarchy’s fairly recent and largely successful attempt to rejuvenate its public image. In this instance, it seems that the “crown jewels” are staked on the modest portrayal of a “commoner”–though as others have noted, it’s only in the UK that the daughter of millionaires could be considered a commoner. Suppressing these grainy topless images from circulating further, at least in paid venues like tabloid magazines, enables the Palace to restore luster to the Crown.