HOW'S THIS FOR A STORY: Spoiled-rich New England kid worships Keats, uses cameras to make snapshots of anything remotely connected with his hero, develops a fascination for the occult, collects 900 rare books by his 21st birthday, starts a publishing company which unleashes Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley on the shores of America, dines with George Santayana and Bernard Berenson and P. T. Barnum, introduces a 10-year-old immigrant named Kahlil Gibran to mysticism, photographs himself in loincloth and crown of thorns as Christ crucified -- on a cross imported from Syria, loses 2,000 negatives and hundreds of prints in a 1904 Boston fire, eventually passes much of his time in the company of young boys and then spends the last 16 of his 69 years in bed alone.
Such is the very vaguest outline of the life of F. (baptized not Frederick, but Fred, a name he found too common to use) Holland Day, whose turn-of-the-century work in Boston well should have earned him a niche in history -- both as a publisher of 100 volumes of avant-garde literature and as a creator of lyrical photographic portraits. Perhaps the two pursuits worked against each other in dividing his talents or perhaps, for the past half century, some just god has been punishing Day for being almost single-handedly responsible for the publication of The Prophet.
Whatever the reasons, this is the first biography to be written about Day and the first volume of his moody, deeply textured photographs ever published (with the exception of a catalogue for a single college exhibit).
How odd this neglect seems in light of the fascinating material presented in Estelle Jussim's book, one those stranger-than-fiction baroque American biographies that helps define the interpolay between visionary art and solipsistic madness. Here is a character of truly mythic proportions: a brillian student haunted by an overbearing mother; a man obsessed with the process of collecting; who wandered around in the clothing of monks and sailors; who wrote by the light of 13 candles; and who touched off tremors of protest after he created the series of photographs of himself portraying the crucified figure of Christ.
Slave To Beauty elevates Day's status in the pantheon of photography. Until now he was rarely mentioned in photography circles, garnering a mere passing reference in a single paragraph of Beaumont Newhall's standard history of the art form. On the occasions when his work was discussed, it was generally dismissed as second-rate or derivative. His photos of young boys, for example, were criticized for borrowing too much from the pederastic excesses of Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden. If, in fact, both focused on the images of modern male sprites in the woods or on the rocks, Von Gloeden's seem designed to draw the viewer's eyes below the waist while Day's are, in a real sense, elevating. And beyond this, there are his extraordinary protraits.
Jussim argues -- quite convincingly -- that a feud between Day and Alfred Stieglitz over a photo show in London effectively guraranteed that Stieglitz (an early admirer of Day, and the godfather of photography in New York at the turn of the century) would never again promote Day's work. This shocked the great photographers Clarence White, Gertrude Kasebier and Edward Steichen -- all close friends and admirers of Day -- but none of them was able to soften Stieglitz's attitude, which had been formed perhaps more out of jealousy than anger. In 1903 Stieglitz finally attempted a reconciliation by offering Day an opportunity to publish some of his images in the first issue of Camera Work, a seminal journal that would eventually establish the careers of many photographers. But, by then, Day had become so distrustful of Stieglitz that he declined.
This is a strikingly handsome volume, reflecting in many ways the innovative and important design work -- particularly the classic style of Bertram Goodhue -- done in the books published by Day's firm Copeland & Day in the 1890s. The pages are abroad, with illustrations juxtaposed to appropriate sections of text. The body of the book is followed by 59 sumptuous plates that substantiate Jussim's claims of Day's greatness as a photographer.
One might have hoped for a more animated treatment of this fascinating character: occasionally Jussim seems to be sketching Day's life in rather shallow detail. Some of this may be due to the absence of important material: sletters to Day from Wilde and Beardsley, with whom he apparently had enjoyed homosexual relationships, were sold as part of his estate to private collectors. And Jussim sometimes slips into inappropriate cliches that mar the flow of her narrative, as in: "Day grew into it like a hot-house orchid." In general, however, she has created a biography that not only provides an absorbing glimpse of a delightful quirk in American cultural history, but also stands as one of the more literate and beautifully crafted books of the past several years.