July 23, 1864 – F. Holland Day
Fred Holland Day was as an early pioneer of art photography, plus he was an influential book publisher whose 100+ titles included works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.
The sole heir of a fortune from his Boston merchant father, Day was able to indulge his artistic pursuits with abandon. He built a summer camp on an island in Maine where he hosted the young men who modeled for him. They were usually from Boston’s poor immigrant population. One of his models was Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese immigrant, whom Day encouraged in his literary ambitions. Gibran’s book of poetic essays, The Prophet, has been published in more than 40 languages and has never been out of print.
Day also photographed adults, notably himself as Jesus Christ, as well as prominent artists and LGBTQ leaders such as Edward Carpenter.
Day had a special interest in the life and work of tragic 19th century Romantic poet John Keats and amassed a substantial collection of Keats’ ephemera. Another passion was printing, and he founded the Boston publishing house of Copeland & Day in 1883, where he was one of the first publishers to marry contemporary art and printing. Day had strong ties to the Arts and Crafts Movement and to younger members of England’s art community. Copeland & Day was Oscar Wilde’s publisher in the United States, publishing Salome in 1894 and Sphinx in 1899, and they published Beardsley’s North American edition of The Yellow Book from 1894 to 1896.
His work is a photographic parallel to James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s paintings. He shot a series of young men and women from the immigrant tenements of Boston, and African-Americans he encountered when he visited the South. Day also photographed a series of youths invoking the myth of Orpheus and other Classical themes. His pictures of nude men brought considerable controversy. Also controversial, Day produced a series of photographs of religious subjects depicting the crucifixion and The Seven Last Words of Christ.
The Library of Congress and the Royal Photographic Society have the largest collections of his photographs. Day was also very active in promoting the work of other young art photographers, and he curated an exhibition in 1900, New School of American Photography, which was shown to much acclaim. Day’s studio and much of his photographs and his art collection was destroyed in a fire in 1904.
As a youth, Day’s hero was Oscar Wilde. They both loved Keats, they both believed in beauty for its own sake; art needed no moralistic message or advanced artistic technique to justify it. And both were enthralled by the male form. Day met Wilde in 1882.
Ten years later, Day had tea with Wilde in his London study. By then, he had become a well-known leading publisher, collector, and art photographer. Day’s fame came fast, yet his most productive years only lasted a decade (1895-1905).
Day lived a life of free thinking and personal expression that made his work seem scandalous then and groundbreaking now. Still, he kept his queerness to himself. Day probably wanted to avoid making the same mistake of Wilde, that ultimately cost the great writer’s life.
Growing up, Day’s mother had unusually progressive attitudes towards immigrants and African-Americans, which she passed on to her son. She took the democratic teachings of her Universalist faith seriously and her world-view had a real effect in Day’s later work.
In 1879, his mother became sick and was ordered to travel to Denver to recover in the fresh mountain air. Day, a teenager, accompanied her. In Denver, he met Americans who were Asian and Latino for the first time, broadening his perspective. He purchased Chinese painting supplies and became fascinated by Asian-American art, which became a lifelong passion.
In 1886, Day began taking photographs, mostly of the homes of Boston writers, combining his two passions: books and photography. His early pictures were taken in dim gaslight which required his subjects to hold their poses for long stretches. The availability of electric light was not widespread until after WW I but wealthy families began using electricity for lighting as early as the 1890s. The evolution in lighting from gas to electricity influenced Day and other early photographers.
Day’s most important relationship was with his business partner Herbert Copeland, a well-educated, sophisticated young ”confirmed bachelor”. They shared an interest in men, books and art. Their partnership created one of the most respected publishing houses at the time. Copeland was bravely out-of-the-closet while Day was more reticent.
In a letter to Day, complaining about a romance with a married man, Copeland wrote:
”I was desperately taken with him at first sight, and deliberately laid myself out to catch him…before I knew he was married.”
Day was generous financially and he treated his models well. Day met an Italian youth whom he used in his photograph, St. Sebastian. The young man was probably aware of his good-looks and the effect they had on both Day and Copeland. When Copeland visited him at home, the youth’s mother said: ”It is very good of you Mr. Copeland to take such an interest in my son”. The boy interrupted saying ”Nobody can help taking an interest in me, can they Mr. Copeland?”
In The Seven Last Words Of Christ, Day used himself as the model of the crucified Jesus with Roman soldiers looking on from below. From 1895 to 1898 Day undertook the project that was without precedent: an extended series, 250 negatives, showing scenes of the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection, in which he played the title role. In 1890 Day had traveled to Oberammergau to see the famous once-a-decade Passion Plays. For his own production, Day starved himself, let his beard grow long, and imported cloth and a cross from Syria. Just prior to the reenacted Crucifixion, he made this series of close-up self-portraits, the most powerful images in his entire series which represent Jesus’s seven last words:
Father forgive them; they know not what they do.
Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.
Woman, behold thy son; son, the mother
MY GOD, my GOD, why hast thou forsaken me?
Into thee I Commend my spirit.
It is finished.
Day’s self-portraits as Jesus remain unsettling, as one tries to reconcile their fact and fiction. Day defended the use of photography for sacred subjects as a matter of artistic freedom.
It’s difficult to know how to take the images. Are they a reverential reenactment of one of the most sacred moments in Christianity? Is it a homoeroticized version of a central event in a religion that has condemned queer people?
Pioneering photographer, gallery owner, and art critic, Alfred Stieglitz, began noticing Day’s work in the middle 1890s. Steiglitz had founded The Camera Club and turned Camera Work, its magazine, into the most influential publication on photography of the era. If your work made it in Camera Work, you were good. Stieglitz and Day were proponents of photography as art. Yet, Day was not as interested in following the methods of great painters or the group of photographers that surrounded Stieglitz. When Stieglitz copied Cubist painters by making Cubist photographs, Day ignored it.
Perhaps it is inevitable that Stieglitz and Day would become competitors. When Day felt shut out by Stieglitz, he responded with silence. This would prove costly. When Day refused to have his work featured in Camera Work, it ended their relationship and may have been the worst professional move of Day’s life. He could not have known the status that Camera Work would earn through the years as the arbiter of great photographic work. This is too sad; before Cindy Sherman‘s multiple personalities and Robert Mapplethorpe‘s homoerotic images, there was Day.
By 1925, both of Day’s parents and Copeland had died. He spent long stretches of time upstairs in his bedroom at the family house in Norwood, Massachusetts. He spent his last years in seclusion. F. Holland Day died in 1933 at 69-years-old.
The Edwardian age was not a time for public pronouncements on sexuality. But that didn’t mean Day was without queer desire. Maybe it was better, more artistic, to remain silent. His hero Keats, wrote:
”Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…”
Day was rediscovered in the 1990s and his work has been included in major exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty, Art Institute of Chicago, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and notably in the solo Day retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2000/2001. Art historians are once again taking an interest in Day, and there are now significant academic texts on Day’s homoerotic portraiture, and its similarities to the work of Thomas Eakins.
Day’s house at 93 Day Street, Norwood, Massachusetts is now the F. Holland Day House and Norwood History Museum.