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New book refines the focus on a photographer

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 20, 2008 03:19 PM

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Holland Day
Portrait of F. Holland Day (c. 1900) by Reginald Craigie
Courtesy of the Norwood Historical Society

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent

For a decade, Patricia Fanning has navigated the delicate balance between two passions and worlds.

One is her job as an associate professor and head of the sociology department at Bridgewater State College.

The other, a biographer of F. Holland Day, a Norwood native and one of the world's most influential photographers at the turn of the 20th century.

Day pushed the limits of Victorian sensibilities and helped elevate photography to an art form, yet died in relative obscurity, Fanning said.

"He was a good man, an excellent friend, and a wonderful mentor," said Fanning. "There were a lot of negative things out there about him. And, the more I did research, I thought, 'They don't have it right.' "

Book cover
With new archival information, Fanning tries to set the record straight in "Through an Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day," The book, published this fall by the University of Massachusetts Press, has been called "valuable" and "required reading" by critics.

In her research, the process of discovery made Fanning feel like a friend of Fred (not Frederick), even long after his death in 1933.

Day lived in Boston for most of his career, when he was both revered and reviled for his startling and often controversial photos, which ranged from mythological scenes of scantily clad young men to stunning portraits of children and African-Americans, and even recreations of the crucifixion using himself as the model for Christ. (See a gallery of a few of his photos at bottom.)

During his life, Day's works were exhibited in Paris and London, and today his works are maintained at the Library of Congress in Washington and The Royal Photographic Society in Bath, England. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts held a retrospective of his work in 2000.

Fanning is the Day collection archivist at the Norwood Historical Society, which has its roots in the artist's former home, a picturesque 18-room downtown mansion.

Day was born in 1864. The only son of wealthy industrialists renovated the estate in the late 1800s to reflect the growing Arts and Crafts style.

"The people in Norwood would tip their hat to Fred Day, but they didn't know who they had in their midst," Fanning said.

A cofounder of Copeland & Day, he published 98 books in six years, including those by W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and Stephen Crane.

Day socialized with renowned photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn and Edward Steichen, was a mentor to writer Kahlil Gibran, who modeled for Day as a child in Boston, and amassed a collection of John Keats's works and memorabilia.

In the early 1900s, Day had a falling out with Alfred Stieglitz, an influential photographer of the time perceived by some as too autocratic in his efforts to have photography accepted as a fine art. Day refused to allow his work to be exhibited at Stieglitz' Photo-Secession galleries or in the movement's journal, and his fame dimmed.

The antagonism to Day's work was captured in a "Photographic News" review of a 1900 exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society. The review described the photographs as the result "of a diseased imagination, of which much has been fostered by the ravings of a few lunatics."

In the years since his death, rumors have swirled around Day, implying that he had intimate relationships with his young male models, and used servants as models. Fanning says both allegations are untrue.

Fanning joined Norwood's historical society in the early 1970s after college and was struck that no one ever talked about Day. "I became interested, then fascinated," she said.

In 1997, armed with new archival leads and two grants, Fanning set out to rewrite the story.

"Mostly we have letters from other people to him, and you can get a real sense of what he was like," she said. "They are delightful."

About 800 letters were found, many from poet Louise Imogen Guiney, thought to be Day's best friend. There are also books, photos, and volumes of other items, although a 1904 studio fire in Boston destroyed Day's list of models.

One of his models was Margherita Sargent, whose portraits as a child show an ethereal beauty. Fanning wanted to know more about her.

"I researched her family, but lost track in 1945," she said. "Then someone in Texas e-mailed back he was her son."

When Angus Duncan faxed his mother's picture to Fanning, she saw it was taken by Day. She would learn that Margherita married Augustin Duncan, the brother of dancer Isadora Duncan, who died in 1927. Similarly engaging stories emerged for other models, she said: "Research is very seductive. You think, 'Let me just try one more thing.' "

Ill with prostate cancer, Day stopped taking photos in 1916 and helped assemble the town's history and the names of its war dead, Fanning said.

Fanning said she is glad for the chance to clear Day's name. She recently spoke at the Boston Athenaeum and in December heads to London.

"I want to put it out there and say, 'This is what he was like,' " she said. "People were putting their thoughts onto him, looking at him through the lens of the late 20th-century society and culture instead of what he was living. . . . I think I am a whole lot more skeptical now when I read biographies. I'm more curious about looking at the whole picture, not quick to make judgments about people. It's important to walk in their shoes.'

Fanning will sign copies of her book on Dec. 7 during the Dedham Historical Society's Victorian Christmas celebration at the F. Holland Day House. Public tours are offered that day, as well as Dec. 14 and 21, from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $4; free for members.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at

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