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Photographic Negative

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So, okay, I warned you.  The new book is actually doing well and I’ve got a lot of other stuff going on, so the blog is going to be sporadic.

But it’s not only the blog that’s sporadic these days.  I’m also taking forever to read anything, and that includes my desperation book, The Concord  Quartet.  T

This is one of those books that has, scattered throughout in intervals, glossy pages with photographs.  Given the era, all these photographs are in black and white–but given the era, I keep running up against a wall in my head that is somewhat astonished that there are photographs at all.

And this isn’t helped by the fact that Hawthorne, one of the quartet, is represented in no photographs until he reaches old age, while the others are represented by many taken over a long period of time.

And they’re not the posed, deliberate portraits I’m used to seeing from this era, either.   There are many of people at least thoretically caught working at their desks or reading by the fire.

Hawthorne, though, has only one head shot taken when he was grayed and almost broken down, and it’s the only photograph I’ve ever seen of him.   For a picture of him as a younger man, we’re left with the famous portrait of him looking vaguely like an American Byron, and even better looking.

What stops me cold, however, is the fact that this lack of photographic evidence–this requirement that I see Hawthorne as a portrait where the other four (Emerson, Thoreaou and Bronson Alcott) are snapshots, does something to the way I conceive of Hawthorne as a writer and a person.

These men were all close to each other in age, but my head keeps classifying  Hawthorne with Washington, Jefferson,  Madison and  Adams and the other three with the more modern America of the Civil War era.

Part of this is that I’m bad at imagining any sort of regularity of rhythm in the passage of time.  The Founding and the Civil War were closer together than my head envisions them, and the Founding and the period of great abolitionist agitation were even closer.   Many of these men had fathers and uncles who fought in the revolution, and all of them had grandfathers who did. 

But although all that seems perfectly plausible when I look at Hawthorne’s portraint, the rest of them, erect in head shots or leaning over piles of papers in paneled studies, seem closer to me in both sensibility and experience than the Revolution could ever be.  I can imagine Hawthorne in a wig.  I can’t imagine Emerson.

I wish  I knew something about the history of photography, when it started, when it became common.  Obviously it was not so common in the era I am talking about.  Otherwise, we’d know if Hawthorne was as spectacularly good-looking in the flesh as the portraits of him always made him out to be.

And by the time we get to the Civil War itself, the practice was common enough so that almost every family at least sat for a formal photographic portrait. 

Then there’s what makes it worse, sort of–the issues these men dealt with are issues that, in slightly altered form, concern us still.  I’m not in intellectually harmony with Bronson Alcott, but I’m not in intellectual harmony with Hawthorne, either, who rejected abolition and wasn’t all that interested in seeing the slaves freed. 

I sympathize with the Hawthorne of The  Blithedale  Romance–communes are always idiotic–but if I had to pick a writer or a work that comes closest to the way I think, I’d have to ditch the writers and pick a single work, Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts.

I have no idea why photographs make so much of a difference in the way I perceive writers, but it’s interesting to think that there are many writers who were never photographed but who could have been, and that my perception of their work and their thinking is unalterably affected by the fact. 

And that’s even more confusing, because photography as a common practice for writers seems to have hit England after it hit the States

Somehow, I think Byron would have been much less of a romantic figure if we’d ever had a photograph of him–and Byron without the romance is mostly a bad poet.

Written by janeh

April 10th, 2009 at 9:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Photographic Negative'

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  1. Why does his appearance matter? Appearance does matter, I know. In spite of Shakespeare’s warning, I find myself assuming things about people based on their appearance, even though I know I shouldn’t because I can lead myself astray badly and end up being unfair to the person.

    But assuming you are aware of the human tendency to associate certain looks with certain personality types, why does it matter that Hawthorne looks like he could wear a wig and the others don’t?

    Of course, social change is never uniform and some people in any population are going to have some beliefs and attitudes and such more typical of a much earlier period than most. Maybe Hawthorne was one of them (what I know about the Concord Quartet is essentially what I picked up in your blog, so I don’t know the answer). Maybe he didn’t like being photographed much. I don’t like being photographed much, but I always examine any photographs in a book I’m reading!

    I always assumed Byron was a good poet as well as being famous for being a romantic and revolutionary figure. I couldn’t name a poem he wrote, though. I don’t read poetry much, unless you count old-fashioned song lyrics. I suspect mostly you don’t!


    10 Apr 09 at 4:51 pm

  2. Dates for common use of photography are easy: I’ve never seen a contemporary photograph of the Mexican War or the European disturbances of 1848. By the Crimean War, British officers can afford to have their photographs taken, and by the American Civil War–well, after the war they used the glass plates for greenhouses. They were that common in the north. (Southern photos are almost all early war, before they ran out of chemicals.) So: unheard of or almost so in 1848, doable if you had money about 1855, and common as dirt by 1861–the customary high-tech progression.

    Incidentally, ALL those photos were posed, due to the exposure time required. If it looks spontaneous and unposed, that’s an implicit lie.

    As for Byron, have confidence: if the technology had been available during the Napoleonic Wars, Byron would have looked like The Corsair in the dustjacket photo. One way or another, his publisher would have seen to it. Scott would have looked like a character out of MARMION, and Jane Austen would have been MUCH better looking than the surviving sketch. (My real regret is that there were no papparazi to cover Caro Lamb.)

    My guess is the modern friendly spontaneous interview would have been a MUCH deadlier trap for Byron. Heaven knows it’s led enough modern public figures to expose their ignorance and arrogance.

    Incidentally, the book you want–really more a photo essay–is Alain Jaubert’s MAKING PEOPLE DISAPPEAR. Most of it deals with governments, but they aren’t the only ones who need to lie with pictures. My copy is the 1989 English translation. One can only imagine the heights reached since with the aid of digital imagery.


    10 Apr 09 at 6:02 pm

  3. No, I couldn’t leave it alone. Hawthore was born in 1804 and Thoreau in 1817–more or less the same age from a perspective of two centuries, but I was born in 1952. Were that date 1939 or 1965, my life would have been very different.

    Every dustjacket and encyclopedia article you’ve ever read on Thoreau or Hawthorne uses some variant of two or three contemporary images of each author–and if you contemplate the choice and variants, you’ll understand my suspicions. The earliest Thoreau photograph seems to be 1856. (A fan sent money: why am I not surprised?) The earliest Hawthorne photo seems to be 1860–pretty much the same time, but that makes Thoreau 39 and Hawthorne 56–and two years from being dead, for that matter. The Hawthorne painting is 1840, making him 36, give or take, and as close a match as we’ll get to the early Thoreau photograph.

    How honest was the painter? I’d say look up a bunch of Charles Osgood paintings and see whether he seemed to paint unusually good-looking people–or whether any of his later work can be cross-checked with photographs.

    But then I don’t trust photographs that far either.


    12 Apr 09 at 9:54 am

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