ANDOVER — The photography exhibition of the moment is the very large Cindy Sherman retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Sherman has long been our mistress of postmodern ceremonies, using props, costumes, and role-playing to pursue an ongoing, 35-year interrogation of personal identity.
So “Making a Presence: F. Holland Day in Artistic Photography” could hardly have opened at a better time. The show runs through July 31 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, at Phillips Academy, Andover.
Day (1864-1933) used props, costumes, and role-playing, too, but toward different ends. To secure a place for photography among the fine arts, he used the camera to ape painting and traditional genres. How traditional? He took multiple portraits of himself as Christ on the cross and looked an awful lot like Rembrandt when he posed in a portrait for Edward Steichen. Just as important, Day’s posing in multiple roles both for himself and other photographers answered a transparent need for self-presentation. That need announced itself very early. “Making a Presence” includes the 14-year-old Day’s carte de visite: He wears a false mustache.
Sherman’s ideal is that viewers lose any awareness of the person in the photograph as Sherman. Day was always Day, regardless of how outlandish the garb he wore — North African robes, medieval tunics, sailor suits — or how theatrical the role he assumed. He was a character actor playing his own character. “An extraordinary, extravagant personality” was how the art critic Sadakichi Hartmann described Day in 1900. “To pose is a necessity to him, as it is only when he believes himself something out of the ordinary that he can accomplish good work.”
Wondrous as such a hothouse character as Day was, more wondrous still is that he started out on a most unusual stage for exoticism: cold-roast Boston. Day grew up in Norwood and went to the Chauncey Hall school, then located in Back Bay. In 1889 he joined the Boston Camera Club. Within a few years, he was being photographed in medieval garb. He had found his metier.
“Making a Presence,” which has been imaginatively curated by Trevor Fairbrother, is as much about Day’s person and persona(s) as his art, and rightly so. In addition to more than 100 photographs, it includes two of Day’s top hats, their carrying case (shipping labels still on them), and the crown of thorns he used in his portrayals of Christ.
Day flourished at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This put him at the confluence of two cultural phenomena: the aestheticism movement in the arts generally, and Pictorialism in photography. An evangelist for both beauty and photography, Day was one of the first persons to refuse to recognize a distinction between the two. In that regard, he was a lesser, more flamboyant version of Alfred Stieglitz, with whom he had a somewhat problematic relationship.
The most striking instance of that evangelism was a show Day mounted in Boston in 1902: “Portraits by a Few Leaders in the Newer Photographic Methods.” It consisted of 54 photographs, taken by 21 photographers, and one subject: Day. At the Addison, all the images are hung on a single mauve wall (the other three walls of the single gallery in which “Making a Presence” snugly fits are a sort of off-avocado).
The man we see had fine, boyish features, and a generally quizzical expression. More often than not, Day looked fussy and aloof. The pince-nez he wore suited him. Yet even if the camera didn’t feast on this face, neither did it ever lose interest. That might have something to do with the quality of the people Day sat for. Has any photographer had as many portraits taken by so many notable peers? Besides Steichen, there were Alvin Langdon Coburn (a Day protégé), Frederick H. Evans, Clarence White, Gertrude Kasebier, and Josiah Hawes.
Day had a strong affinity for Symbolism, the Arts and Crafts movement, and such proudly decadent figures as Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Aubrey Beardsley. Day’s photography shared their devout aestheticism and pronounced stylization. Artistically, Day aligned himself with Pictorialism, the one formally ambitious contemporary style of photography: soft in focus, romantic in outlook, self-conscious in its refinement.
Day used the camera, that preeminent tool of documentary reality, as a vehicle for make-believe. At the time, that made his photographs more culturally respectable. More than a century later, that can make them seem quaint — or worse. Yet the work offers a consistent earnestness and artistry that immunize it against camp. No matter how often Day may flirt unawares with the absurd, he always stays on this side of aesthetic affectation, even if just barely. There’s a charming naivete to his artistic sensibility. A sweetness tempers his egotism.
Sometimes Day evades the ridiculous in unexpected ways. “The Seven Words,” a series of seven photographs that show a bearded, bare-shouldered Day in tight close-up as Christ, correspond to the biblical tradition of Jesus’s last words. There’s no missing the homoeroticism here (nor in the several other images in which he poses as Christ). The look on Day’s face is ecstatic. That’s clear enough. What isn’t clear is whether it’s spiritual in nature, carnal — or both.
Day may well not have known that himself. Several photographs in the show suggest a deep physical attraction to African-American males. “The Smoker,” for example, carries an unmistakable erotic charge. It’s a charge that never discharges, though. There’s a Peter Pan quality to Day. Not only did he like to wear a sailor suit when staying at his Maine summer home, he liked his guests to do so, too. So often narcissism masquerades as innocence. Day’s career presents a rare case of the reverse.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.