Day began photographing people of color in Boston in the mid-nineties, a period marked by increasing racial tension and polarization… His own mythological conception of the black race leads us to explore Day’s orientalism, and how popular stereotypes of Africa were informing his imagery. In Ebony & Ivory (1897), his most important photograph depicting race, Day’s black-skinned model sits in profile, his head cocked slightly away from the viewer. As he perches gracefully upon a leopard skin, his defined musculature and the luster of his body contrast with the bright white marble replica of a dancing satyr the man holds in his right hand. The photograph signals the nexus of the Christian and Greek worlds with the world of ancient Africa. By juxtaposing the seminude body with a classical symbol, Day established the dualities of nature and culture, and black and white. Ebony & Ivory underscores his sophisticated process of conceptualization, and his conscious appropriations from the history of art…Utilizing animal skin, Day made an allusion to Saint John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. But the leopard skin also alludes to the indigenous wildlife of eastern Africa, and the colonial white man’s recreational safari. Day’s use of this motif seems not only exotic, it creates pictorial and ideological tension. It has been suggested that he was responding to the colonial events in Ethiopia by depicting the sitters Africanness and his loss of identity. But Ebony & Ivory also signals aesthetic immersion; it is an exercise in technical mastery for artistic effect. In the context of pictorial photography at the century’s end, this powerful, yet highly problematic, image seems deliberately ambiguous. Suffering the Ideal P. 23
Day’s model for Ebony and Ivory was Alfred Tanneyhill, a helper in the Day household, who seems to have had the composure of a professional. These pictures, dating from 1896/97, were among his studies of Negro models – some of them in ersatz native costume – that were praised for their imaginative handling and brought Day recognition before the creation of his sacred series. William Murray wrote in Camera Notes in 1898 that Day’s “aspiration has been to lift us into the realms of the imagination by avoiding the vulgar effects of mere realistic quality; and he has aimed throughout his work to suggest, not the mere beauty that delights the eye, but the grace which moves the intellectual and higher sensibili-ties as well.” Day was probably the first American photographer collected by Stieglitz, and he continued to hold Day’s work in high esteem even after their friendship ended in 1900. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Spring 1978
In the late nineteenth century, painters and photographers pursued the representation of an idealized beauty, inspired by Italian Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Themes of allegory and myth were widely explored in the arts at this time, particularly in Britain in the writings of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. At the turn of the century painting and photography were part of a wider artistic search for harmony between subject matter and expression. Artists found inspiration in each other’s practice and continued to share ideas through illustrated books and journals. This spirit of collaboration and interchange led photographer Fred Holland Day to claim that ‘the photographer no longer speaks the language of chemistry, but that of poetry’. Painting with Light, Tate, London 2016.
As head of the Camera Notes publication committee, Stieglitz issued a limited edition of 150 portfolios in the fall of 1899 to exemplify the most characteristic examples of the work of those Americans whose names are best known to the club or whose influence has been most pronounced on the development of pictorial photography in America.” Additional works were to be added to the portfolio over time so that ultimately the complete series would be the most “representative collection of pictures ever published, and should be in the hand of every serious student of pictorial photography, not alone as a record of representative American work, but because of the exceptional opportunity afforded by it of perfecting one’s own work through the careful, conscientious study of that or others.” The portfolio, American Pictorial Photography, featured eighteen photogravures printed on Indian paper (including Stieglitz’s Reflections Venice and Early Morn), along with a title page and table of contents printed in red and black on Japanese paper, all enclosed within green cloth covers stamped in gold with the seal of the Camera Club. The name of the subscriber and the number of the copy printed on the reverse of the title page, and each copy was counter-signed by Stieglitz. Arranged, engraved, and printed by the Photochrome Engraving Company, the photogravures were “so remarkably executed as to deceive the eye into the belief that they are original platinum and carbon prints and not merely reproductions therefrom. The engravers have every reason to feel proud of their work, which has attracted great attention wherever shown, and which deserves to be ranked with, if not as, the best work of the kind ever done in this country.” Greenough p. 938
Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. New York, NY, 1978
Day, Fred H, and James Crump. Suffering the Ideal. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 1995.
Greenough, Sarah, and Alfred Stieglitz. Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set : the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs. Washington, D.C: National Gallery of Art; New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.