Fred Holland Day


Conchita Fernandes traces the life of Fred Holland Day, an important but lesser known pictorialist who never conformed to any conventions or dictates of what art should be.

Woman in elaborate velvet dress and hat, seated, 1900. All photographs are by Fred Holland Day courtesy of the Library of Congress

Towards the end of the 19th century, there arose a movement amongst practitioners of the medium who felt the need to separate photography as an art form from photography that was used objectively for documentation. Called Pictorialism—a name coined by Henry Peach Robinson in his groundbreaking, influential book, Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869)—the movement gained momentum in the early part of the 20th century by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Gertrude Käsebier. Together, they were a part of the Photo-secession movement. “The Photo-secessionists, hand-picked by Stieglitz and tightly controlled by him, were American fine-art photographers, part of a larger, international aesthetic movement called Pictorialism. Pictorialists championed subjective picture-making in the manipulation of the photographic image, often transcending time and emulating other visual art forms such as painting, drawing and etching; this approach was in direct opposition to sharp, documentary, topographical, factual photographs,” an excerpt from the book Art in Time by Phaidon.

However, before Stieglitz became a formidable figure in the photographic circle, there was Fred Holland Day, who rivalled Stieglitz in his vision and practice. However, he remained largely forgotten owing to his nonconformist persona and career setbacks.

The Beginning
Fred Holland Day was born into wealth. The son of a prosperous Boston merchant, Day was a man of independent means throughout his life, which allowed him to pursue the arts. He was also a philanthropist who supported and mentored poor immigrant children who arrived in Boston. One of them was the 13-year-old Kahlil Gibran, the famed author of The Prophet.

To understand Day’s oeuvre, one must be cognizant of his upbringing. He grew up in a household that encouraged an affinity towards all races—his mother was an active abolitionist. As a teenager, he accompanied his mother (1879) to Denver where, for the very first time, he met Americans of Asian and Latino descent. He also developed a fascination for Asian-American art, a passion that he retained throughout his life.

Wooden bridge at Little Good Harbor (Georgetown, Maine) with two men, both in Japanese costume, 1909.

Before he took up photography at the age of 22, and having relinquished any desire to follow his friends into Harvard, Day, upon the insistence of his father, took up a job at a publishing company. His father wasn’t too pleased about his growing affection towards the arts, and felt that the job would level him out. It didn’t make the slightest difference. Instead, Day gathered valuable experience which he then put to good use when he founded his own publishing house (Copeland and Day) along with his partner, Herbert Copeland. In the brief time that it existed (1893-1899), Copeland and Day was one of the most successful publishing houses in Boston, having published about a hundred books from authors like Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson.

When he began photographing in 1886, his pictures were mostly of homes of local authors. Because electric light wasn’t as widespread in homes until after World War I, Day had to make do with dim gaslight, which required his subjects to remain still for a long duration. Later, when electric light became widely available, it changed the quality of photographs that Day and his fellow photographers made. In fact, it paved the way for Pictorialism, because the change in light led to the creation of satiny, dark pictures.

His Interest in Mythology and Religion
Day’s photographs reflect his deep-rooted interest in literature and mythology as seen in some of the elaborate costumes that he got his sitters to wear, and the way he got them to pose for the camera. At the time, his portraits raised a lot of controversy and scrutiny owing to nudity and the presence of mostly young, male sitters. Heavily influenced by the myth of Orpheus (a prophet in Greek religion) and other classical themes, Day’s pictures carry a heightened sense of symbolism as seen in the subtle tones of his prints. When contention with his work grew, he defended his photographic decisions. He argued that if the male nude could be artistically replicated in paintings and sculptures, why couldn’t it do the same with photographs?

“And if it chance that (a) picture is beautiful, by what name shall we call it? Shall we say that it is not a work of art, because our vocabulary calls it a photograph?” he went on to say.

Crucifixion, frontal, with two Roman soldiers, 1898.

His most controversial body of work (1895-1898) comprised about 250 negatives that depicted the scenes of the life of Christ, from annunciation to resurrection. What made it contentious was that Day became his own subject, Christ in this case. He went all out for the role… He grew his beard and lost weight to create a close rendition of Christ on the cross. He also imported cloth and a cross from Syria. He had people dressed in the traditional attire at the time of Christ, and got them to pose for pictures where he was hung from a cross. He also made a series of close-up self-portraits that symbolise Christ’s last moments on the cross. They are, by far, the most powerful photographs from the series, scrupulously emulating the agony of Christ on the cross.

Owing to the deep sentiment associated with one of the most revered religious figures in history, a lot of people found his pictures unsettling. As always, Day defended his decision; that like paintings, photographs too can be used to interpret and depict religious icons. Edward Steichen, who was a friend of Day, said of the work, “Few paintings contain as much that is spiritual and sacred in them as do the ‘Seven Words’ (the name of the series) of Mr. Day… If we knew not its origin or its medium, how different would be the appreciation of some of us, and if we cannot place our range of vision above this prejudice, the fault lies wholly with us. If there are limitations to any of the arts, they are technical; but of the motif to be chosen the limitations are dependent on the man—if he is a master, he will give us great art and ever exalt himself.”

Nude youth with laurel wreath and lyre (Orpheus), 1907

Day never married. This, coupled with the kind of photographs he made, continued to raise eyebrows pertaining to his sexuality. “There is abundant circumstantial evidence, from Day’s art to his circle of associates, to indicate that he was emotionally attracted to, and perhaps personally intimate with men. In keeping with the restrictions of his era, he cloaked his sexuality, and writers have tended to use that as a reason to be reticent on the topic,” explains Trevor Fairbrother, an art curator.

Many questioned whether Day’s reenactment of Christ was an attempt made in reverence to one of the most sacred moments in Christianity, or whether it was an attempt at a homo-eroticised version of a pivotal moment in a religion that faulted queer people. Adrienne Lundgren, a senior photograph conservator at the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress does not see Day’s portrayal of Christ as a reenactment, but as a performance to elicit a response from the viewer.

Clash of the Titans
By the mid 1890s, Stieglitz (who, at the time, wasn’t yet as formidable a figure in the art world but was on his way to becoming one) took notice of Day’s work. By this time, he (Stieglitz) had founded (the iconic) The Camera Club in New York as a way “to improve the American discourse on artistic photography.” Camera Notes (which was later turned into Camera Work) was a newsletter for the club, which later became one of the most definitive publications on photography at the time. Even though Stieglitz and Day were both proponents of photography as art, Day couldn’t get himself to proffer the same importance that the photographers surrounding Stieglitz extended to painters. When Day noticed Stieglitz copying Cubist painters into his photographs, he ignored them.

Girl in sheer drapery on leopard skin, in nature, reclining, 1897.

It was inevitable that their relationship turned into one of competitiveness. Ultimately, it resulted in a crushing blow to Day’s career when he refused to have his photographs published (1902) in Stieglitz’s Camera Work (prior to this, Stieglitz managed to publish Day’s photographs and writings in Camera Notes). This spelled the end of their relationship, some critics even call it the worst possible move of Day’s career. In his defense, Day couldn’t have possibly known the importance that Camera Work would command in the following years, especially with regards to Pictorialism.

Why He Should Be Remembered
Day was particular about his prints, and was known for his ability to render a full range of soft tones and details. He often made only a single print from a negative, and only used the platinum process while printing. When platinum became unobtainable following World War I (a shortage of platinum made printing exorbitantly expensive), he lost interest in photography altogether. In 1904, a fire broke out in his Boston studio, claiming over 2000 glass negatives. This more or less ended his career in photography. By 1917, he settled in his home in Norwood, Massachusetts, and became a recluse following his mother’s death in 1922. He spent these years collecting records and artifacts pertaining to his family’s genealogy and the history of the town of Norwood.

George Demetrios in Greek folk costume, seated with hand to face, 1913.

Even though Day was obscured by time, he is central to the history of the medium. The period from 1895 to 1905 were his most productive years. This is noteworthy because in a matter of a decade he managed to create a body of work that defied the conventions of his time. When he was active, he was one of the foremost proponents of pictorial photography in the United States. With unrelenting energy, he wrote articles, put up exhibitions, and supported and encouraged young photographers to see the merit in the medium’s artistic potential. In 1900, he organised The New School of American Photography, which was the first exhibition of American pictorialist photography in Europe. The show took place in London and Paris and included his pictures along with the works of Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence White. All three would later become a part of Stieglitz’s Photo-secession movement. However, wanting to remain independent, Day never joined the movement. It is no wonder that he was almost forgotten amongst the greats in the history of the medium.

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Better Photography.