“The Embodiment of a Prayer”: The Exploration of Spirituality in the Photographic Work of F. Holland Day and His Contemporaries

AHA Session 68
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon C (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Patricia J. Fanning, Bridgewater State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

As T. J. Jackson Lears notes in his work No Place of Grace in the late nineteenth century, “sacrementalism embodied an effort to preserve a sense of the miraculous in a disenchanted world.” Nowhere is this effort more evident than in the work of photographer F. Holland Day and his circle. Raised a Unitarian-Universalist, Day nonetheless searched for a spirituality beyond any denominational affiliation. He attended various services and read widely in Mormonism, mysticism, Theosophy, and Eastern religions in an attempt to experience transcendence and to capture that experience in his art. This panel will explore three dimensions of Day’s photography, ever mindful (as was he) of the social context in which this spiritual imagery takes shape. As such, these papers will explore the very nature of the sacred in art and its relationship to history, culture, race, gender, and class.

Libby Bischof will explore Day’s images of the crucifixion of Christ. Day sought to assert validity of the crucifixion as a photographic subject, acknowledge its relevance to contemporary mainstream religious thought, and to satisfy the aesthete’s search for spiritual intensity. Day intended to depict pictorially Christ’s ultimate sacrifice so that observers could themselves experience the suffering and to demonstrate the powerful combination of religious devotion, aesthetic engagement, and the art of photography.

Although Day’s images of black artist and model J. Alexandre Skeete titled Nubia, Ethiopian Chief, and Menelik alluded to ancient history, their modern relevance was obvious to Day’s contemporaries. In 1896, shortly before Day created these images, Ethiopia, led by Menelik II, successfully repulsed an Italian invasion. The first time a black army had evicted a white occupier, the event was a blow to colonialism and a victory for blacks worldwide. Pamela Jane Sachant also ties these images to W.E.B. DuBois’ sense of “a distinctive African consciousness” rooted in spirituality and separate from American society and values.

Critic Albert Aurier introduced Symbolism to art by arguing that art’s goal was “not to create accurate representations of objects but, using symbols, to capture the more elusive ideas and emotions hidden beneath the surface.” To that end, Day acquired and utilized in his art an extensive collection of photographic accessories significant to diverse religious and occult believers. One important accessory was a crystal ball, or orb. Curator Verna Posever Curtis will explore the significance of this provocative and mysterious object to Day and his colleagues.

F. Holland Day and his colleagues portrayed in their photographic work the elemental emotional dimensions of spirituality prevalent in certain late nineteenth century circles. Using historical and contemporary settings, mundane and mysterious accessories, and models that differed in race, class, and gender, they explored connections between the sacred and the secular during an historical era when these issues held great import. Above all, these images come close to sharing Julia Margaret Cameron’s quest: “The photograph thus taken,” she wrote, “has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.”

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