Through an Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day

Article excerpt

Through an Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day. By Patricia J. Fanning. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. 255 pages. $32.00 (hardcover).

We are fortunate when writers choose to illuminate corners of history by focusing on figures who, however influential, were better known in their own times than they are today. For instance, most of us are exposed to the poems of Emily Dickinson, who was virtually unknown when she lived. But today few are familiar with Elizabeth Gaskell, author of nineteenth-century "best sellers." Books that lead us into such unknown biographical territory can be refreshing and revelatory.

Such a book is Through an Uncommon Lens, Patricia Fanning's biography of publisher and photographer F. Holland Day (1864-1933). Fanning provides a new perspective on a world previously defined by Day's (currently) more famous contemporaries, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Nonetheless, Day arguably belongs in that pantheon: he has been described as producing "the most ambitious artistic photography of the era."1

In exploring Day's life, Fanning also offers a fascinating look at life in Boston, the "Athens of America," as it underwent commercial and societal transitions at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, Through an Uncommon Lens examines some historic cultural tensions: American artistic vision emerging from its European origins; a photographic artistic vision emerging from painterly and documentary origins; and the divergence between New England and New York artistic milieus. That latter tension is embodied in Day and Stieglitz, who learned from each other, collaborated in a "New School," and ultimately grew apart. The adage that "nice guys finish last" perhaps applies to Day in relation to Stieglitz. All of Fanning's evidence indicates that Day was innovative and talented, passionate and flamboyant, but also unassuming, loyal and kind, a generous friend and mentor. He tutored and provided scholarships to disadvantaged youth; among his many notable protégés were celebrity portraitist Bachrach and poet Kahlil Gibran. In contrast, Stieglitz comes across in this book as equally innovative and talented, but a more selfserving and competitive personality.

An aficionado of oysters and Boston baked beans, Fred Holland Day was a true New Englander, the last fruit of a Massachusetts family tree with strong humanitarian and community roots. He was born in South Dedham, Massachusetts, now incorporated as Norwood. He appreciated his regional history, and loved and collected antiques of all kinds. While a lifelong resident of the Bay State, he enjoyed jaunts abroad and retreats to his beloved coastal "chalet" in Maine (where his ashes were scattered after his death). As a boy, he attended Chauncy Hall, a Boston preparatory school. There he was introduced to other expressive and intellectually curious young people who helped shape his ambitions. He went on to co-found an artistic movement (the Visionists), establish and edit two periodicals, and run a Boston publishing house, Copeland and Day, that advocated as much attention to the design and craftsmanship of books as to their content. …