A naked boy stands at the edge of the woods, butt twisted toward the camera. The weeds in the foreground are excruciatingly in-focus. The title is "Marble Faun," evoking Hawthorne's primal America. The photographer is Fred Holland Day, a forgotten Bostonian who was famous in his time.
As silent film was to the stage, early photography was to painting, sometimes. Day's early work is full of classical, symbolic subject matter-in 1898 he starved himself for weeks and then put on a crown of thorns so that he could photograph himself as Jesus and lift the camera to the realm of religious art.
Art and the Camera: The Photographs of F. Holland Day, at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, is full of precious works, the produce of a rich New Englander with good intentions and a penchant for Japanese knick-knacks. Looking at "Marble Faun," one wonders how Day took himself seriously. Historical sympathy will provide all the answers, of course, but the juxtaposition of photography with such old-fashioned subject matter and composition still seems unusual. It is strange to see sharp, crisp weeds that could be a picture in a biology textbook within the same frame as the 19th-century figure of the "Marble Faun." Day was trying to paint with a lens, pushing light instead of pulling it. Each of the pictures in Day's Christ series, "Seven Words," looks like an old-fashioned painting of Christ that suddenly spiraled open like a shutter to reveal the pores and hairs of a real-life man.
Day may have realized this incongruity and found it marvelous, but the modernity of some of his later work shows that he was eventually compelled to move beyond it. In 1904, just as Day was becoming a world-famous photographer, his Boston studio burned down and most of his existing work was destroyed, along with his extensive collection of bric-a-brac. Persevering, he bought new equipment and traveled to the Hampstead Institute in Virginia, where he did his most modernist work. Hampstead was a progressive "college" for black and Native American students. The pictures that Day did there are flat, forthright portraits of confident subjects. They feature beautiful, dark gray tones set in a black field, punctuated by the whites of his subjects' eyes. In this series, Day seems to have become comfortable with the documentary attitude of much modern photography.
But even the Hampstead series is freaked by the specter of white eccentricity. Day's milieu was like a gentle giant, fumbling to grasp exotic cultures, but instead squashing them under its thumb. He never antagonizes his many black, Algerian and working-class subjects, but he frequently objectifies them, making them into statues. Although his white nudes are more marmorial by virtue of their whiteness, they are always dignified by their reference to a classical subject, usually a god. On the other hand, the black nudes of Day's early career, the disadvantaged white youths of his later years and even the surprisingly hopeful faces of the Hampstead series are interesting in themselves-because they are strange, that is.
Day did more than stare at his exotic subjects. He appropriated their spirit. He went along collecting strange artifacts-he once photographed himself in Algerian costume. The entrance to the exhibit showcases a series of self-portraits in which a fully clothed Day is shown on a dark field, with a faint nude black man in the background. Day seems to be audaciously claiming the "foreign" spirit as his own.
The MFA exhibit works hard to capture Day's eccentricities. Several large glass cases contain an exquisite series of fine books produced by the firm Copeland and Day, a publishing venture specializing in decadent fin-de-sicle literature that preceded Day's career in photography. Each photograph is matted in the Arts and Crafts style that Day preferred, often using blues and browns as well as off-white. Some mats even include a thin orange square to contrast with the colorless images.
The photographs are hung in small clusters that encourage a relaxed, one-thing-at-a-time perusal of the gallery. And, fantastically, the curators found several boxes of wallpaper that once belonged to Day and covered the gallery with it, making it look like a brand-new turn-of-the-century New England home. It is set off with dark wood suggested by the mahogany of Day's dining room.
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