Who We Are
Photography changes the way we represent ourselves and see others
Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, explores how Walt Whitman exploited photographic images as a way to create and spread public intimacy.
Until the 1880s photographs could not be easily reproduced in print. Engraved versions were used instead. Photography per se, in the form of daguerreotypes and carte-de-visites, was not part of the public sphere so much as the domestic, to be exchanged and disseminated as a token of intimacy and personalization to contrast with the formal portrait. Even when the image might be of a politician like Abraham Lincoln or a performer like Sarah Bernhardt, the implied message was familiar and seemingly one-to-one. Walt Whitman may not have been the first to exploit photography as part of his effort to bond with an audience, but his connection to the camera began early and lasted virtually until his death. He was an early visitor to Mathew Brady’s photographic gallery in New York City and even wrote about it for the Brooklyn Eagle. With the publication of Leaves of Grass (1855), the frontispiece image of Whitman at 37—casually dressed in an open-collared shirt, fist resting nonchalantly on his hip, head cocked, looking inquisitively at the reader—substituted for a name below the title, using the engraved detail of a photograph to convey not the transcendental poet speaking from above, but the relaxed poet directly addressing his audience: “what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This was neither the desire of a Romantic poet like Keats to disappear behind his work nor the Roman-inspired bust or head-and-shoulders shot more usual in the formal portraiture of the public man. Virtually full length, dressed like a worker, perhaps a longshoreman, Whitman visually presented himself, as he did in his poetry, as a physical body as well as a mind and sensibility: “Camerado! this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man.”
As a pioneer of public intimacy, the new and seemingly paradoxical effort to make one’s private nature into a public image, Whitman’s self-presentations emphasized that the photographic image could be a bridge between viewer and subject: “Out from behind this bending rough-cut mask, / These lights and shades, this drama of the whole, / This common curtain of the face contain’d in me for me, in you for you, in each for each…/ These burin’d eyes, flashing to you to pass to future time…/ To you whoe’er you are—a look.” As the editions of Leaves of Grass changed and the book expanded, Whitman’s image often kept pace, getting older and presented often in tandem with a script-like signature, printed as if personally autographed.
Whitman was photographed many times and in many situations: with his companion Peter Doyle; by visitors as he sat by his desk; and on the occasion of his annual lecture on the death of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Many of those photographs we still have are signed as well, an emblem for those who owned them of a connection and intimacy now distorted out of all recognition by the perfunctory celebrity signature of the present.
The gray-bearded sage of later photographs might seem to contrast with the earlier frontispiece image of youthful vigor. But Whitman was willing to continue to be photographed well into the decline of his body, even, it seems, in a series of naked photographs by Thomas Eakins made when Whitman was in his 60s. Photography was the democratic art, appropriately embraced by the democratic poet, but photography as well was the vehicle of eternity and memory. In the very years that Whitman was photographed sitting in his home in Camden, New Jersey by himself or with two children next to him like a favorite uncle, George Eastman was developing the roll film and later the Brownie camera that by the late 1880s would bring photography out of the atelier and into the hands of anyone who could point and shoot, allowing them, in effect, to create their own “Songs of Myself.” With his usual poetic panache, Whitman would have approved with all flags flying.
- Walt Whitman, c. 1854
- Samuel Hollyer
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Print used as frontispiece to first edition of Leaves of Grass, 1855
In this rough-hewn likeness, Whitman projected himself as a new kind of writer in a calculated act of romantic self-assertion. Whitman later wrote of it: "I look so damned flamboyant, as if I was hurling bolts at somebody-full of mad oaths-saying defiantly, to hell with you!" He published Leaves of Grass himself as a declaration of artistic independence on July 4, 1855. (Actually, Whitman was mythologizing himself with this claim; the book appeared on July 5.)
The poetry fulfilled the image, as Whitman went on to set his own rules:
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the
holds that would hold me.
Copy after: Gabriel Harrison, d. 1818 - 1902
- Walt Whitman, 1883
- Unidentified photographer
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Walt Whitman by Unidentified photographer
Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect (1882), his reminiscences of the Civil War and after, is divided between clear-eyed descriptions of war and peaceful nature writing. Writing about butterflies-"now and then some gorgeous fellow flashing lazily by on wings like artists' palettes"-Whitman maintained that these flighty insects could be trained: "I have one big and handsome moth down here . . . [who] likes me to hold him up on my extended hand." This charming photograph reenacts this event, demonstrating the poet's literal connection with nature-although with a cardboard butterfly.
Whitman was always happy to have his picture taken, although he professed himself never satisfied with the results. "I've been photographed, photographed, and photographed until the cameras themselves are tired of me. . . . I've run the whole gamut of photographic fol-de-rol."
Author: D. Ward