Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space



The following brief life of the boysexual American photographer Fred Holland Day (23 July 1864 – 23 November 1933) by the Reverend Donald Mader (1948-2022), likewise an American boysexual photographer (as well as a scholar and clergyman), has never been published before, but is a considerable expanded version of a short article that appeared in German in Euros (Berlin), Nr. 32.


He was one of the most important figures in the development of American photography, and the first American to win an international reputation for his pictures. A contemporary of Von Gloeden, he is at least as important a figure in the history of the male image in photography as was the Baron of Taormina, and the controversies which surrounded this man’s work remind one of the controversies around Mapplethorpe’[1]s work three quarters of a century later. Indeed, some of the controversy involved the same issue of the representation of blacks. Yet you have probably never heard of him. He was F. Holland Day (1864-1933).

Kahlil Gibran ca. 15 ca. 1898
Kahil Gibran, aged ca. 15, ca. 1898

The only child of a wealthy Boston merchant, Day had the money to indulge his tastes. He assembled a notable collection of material relating to the Romantic poet John Keats, published finely designed books as a partner in the firm of Copeland and Day (the cover design of the new Twin Palms volume of Day's photos derives from Copeland and Day publications), and he took an interest in boys from the slums of Boston, providing educational expenses and personal tutoring for a number of them. His most famous discovery and pupil was Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-born Symbolist artist and writer who later produced the perennial bestseller The Prophet. As a young teenager, Gibran was also the subject and inspiration for several of Day's most stunning early photographic portraits for, along with all his other activities, there was also Day’s photography.

Day was the first American to advocate photography as a serious, independent art form, a medium in which artists could express themselves. Photography’s initial role had been as a handmaiden to the arts and sciences, a mere technique for recording reality, enabling people to see what faraway places really looked like, or to study how people or animals moved. Artists might collect, or even take, photos to use as references for later works. It is true that Thomas Eakins, in Philadelphia, had already gone beyond that, using the same principles that he would have used for the paintings themselves to compose some of these reference pictures, but Eakins’s photo work was always secondary to his painting. For Day, the photographic print was the end in itself.

It is also true that some Europeans had already begun to consider photography as an end in itself, one of them being Von Gloeden, who had trained as a painter in the traditional, academic school, and transferred this aesthetic to his production of photographs, both male nudes and studies of Italian peasant life. But while Von Gloeden’s photographs were winning awards for the degree to which they embodied the aesthetic ideals they shared with the salon painting of the time, Day and a handful of others were going a step further, arguing that photography, as a new and separate medium, must find its own aesthetic standards. For Day, this was the goal of his own photographic work.

In hindsight, the “pictorialist” aesthetic Day and his circle developed looks suspiciously like the avant garde art of that era, the impressionists. They believed that the goal of painting was to record the play of light, while Day and his circle noted that this was of course the very essence of photography (literally, “lightdrawing”), so it is not surprising that the results look similar. While photography eventually went on to define its own aesthetic in other terms, it did so on the basis of the independence won for it by Day and the pictorialists.

Like Von Gloeden (and Eakins, for that matter), Day’s homoeroticism was the age-differentiated form which dominated his era, directed toward younger males. His visual ideal of male beauty was the adolescent:  the boy who is neither child nor adult, yet combines both the vulnerability of childhood and the virility of the adult. The classical references in Day’s work  always more restrained and visually more integrated into the image than Von Gloeden’s  are not merely a knowing wink toward “art”, but integral to Day’s view of the nature of male homoerotic relationships. Even more important are his efforts to translate that view into contemporary images, as he does in the Gibran portraits, among others.

Day. Italian Nicola Giancola in Youth sitting on a stone 1907
Nicola Giancola as Youth Sitting on a Stone, 1907

It is greatly to the credit of James Crump, in his essay introducing the luxurious new Twin Palms collection of Day's work, that he confronts both the role of homoeroticism in Day’s work, and the homoerotic dimension in Day’s mentor/pupil relationships, openly and fully. Our previous sources on Day, the early chapters in Kahlil Gibran’s 1974 biography by his daughter-in-law, Estelle Jussim’s 1981 biography of Day, Slave to Beauty, and Allen Ellenzweig’s chapter on Day in his Homoerotic Photograph,  all skirted at least parts of the issue, the former two delicately refraining from drawing obvious conclusions, and the latter, while dealing honestly with the age-differentiated homoeroticism of Day’s photography, does not deal with Day’s personal life, which after all was not its subject. While it is not clear whether any relationships between Day and particular boys were sexualized, there is no question that sexualized relations of this kind did occur in Day’s circle; letters to Day from Herbert Copeland, Day’s former partner in his publishing venture, for instance, appear to indicate that around 1910 Copeland came close to serious problems in this way. Day himself appears on occasion to have gotten into relationships in which his heart or eye misled him in his estimation of the boy’s character, as suggested in the correspondence presented by Jussim from one “Nardo”, who had posed for some of Day’s later nudes. Yet more often, Day’s regard for the boys proved positive for all: Gibran’s daughter-in-law writes of how Day’s attention for Gibran “fortified his self-image” as he sought to “overcome the reality of a poverty-stricken childhood”, and Crump cites a late letter from Nicola Gioncola, another of Day’s young friends and models, who eventually became a successful designer: “I will always remember you for all the good you did for me and my people, for I know now you have been a man without equal for goodness when you first started me in my enterprising decorative dreams.”

Day was not only a radical pioneer in developing the aesthetic which would define photography for the quarter century between 1895 and 1920, but also occasionally in his subject matter. Peter Weiermair asserts that Day was the first photographer to do studies of Black male nudes (though there may be earlier anthropological studies of black men), and he was surely among the first photographers to invest depictions of Blacks and Asians with the dignity which was refused them in society. Day’s “Ebony and Ivory”, when first published in Camera Notes in 1898, caused a sensation, drawing both social criticism for the subject matter and high praise for its formal qualities, exactly the same sort of arguments as Mapplethorpe’s black men would provoke three quarters of a century later, though in Day’s case the social criticism was racist, that Blacks could not be a fitting subject for art, rather than the critique of paternalism to which Mapplethorpe’s work was subjected. Indeed, to our contemporary eye Day’s various “African”, “Ethiopian” and “Nubian chiefs”, with their exotic props, for all their imputed dignity, may seem painfully patronizing images, imposed by Day as a representative of the dominant white culture, and they certainly raise all the same issues about the representation of black males as sexually desirable. So long as our society is racist, we may never settle the latter issue, but surely in the context of American racial attitudes of a century ago, when in the aftermath of the American Civil War and Reconstruction “lynch law” froze into place the new racial polarization which persists to this day in America, Day’s efforts to valorize blacks must be applauded.

Day. Boy standing playing pipe in the woods 1896 1897
Boy playing pipe in the woods, 1896/7

In view of its dominant role in academic art, the male nude perhaps did not shock the artistic elite of Day’s era as much as we might think, and even black male nudes, while controversial, could be tolerated. But Day crossed the line with his “Sacred Series” of 1898, for which he had himself lashed to a cross on a hillside outside Boston and photographed in a reenactment of the Passion of Christ. Every possible pitfall gaped there: the hubris imputed to Day for posing as the Son of God, the strong homoeroticism of many of the images (which although not remarked upon surely further unsettled viewers), and the inevitable dislocation which arises when photography, with its foundation in reality, is used to create idealized scenes. This dislocation, of Sicilian peasant boys posed as Greek ephebes, is of course exactly what gives Von Gloeden’s work its unintended appeal today, but for Day’s Sacred Series, it was (and is) merely fatal.

The furor this series generated when it was shown, both in America and in 1900 in London, was the first stone cast against Day’s reputation; the second was cast by Day’s former colleague Alfred Stieglitz, who by then had come to see Day as a threat to his preeminence in American photography, and declined to cooperate with any of Day’s projects. Day in turn declined to participate in Stieglitz’s projects, such as the pioneering journal Camera Work.

Then came a major tragedy: the loss of Day’s early prints and negatives when the building housing his studio burned in 1904. Day began to rebuild his oeuvre, this time exploring pagan mythological themes, such as Orpheus, a figure taken up again by George Platt Lynes in a later era of photography  and their Christian counterparts such as St. Sebastian, in a much more subtle natural lighting than the heavy chiaroscuro of his pre-1900 studio work. While or perhaps because  these later studies contain an open and lyric homoeroticism, and successfully integrate the lighting and technique with the sense of his model’s beauty into a powerful eroticism, Day gradually withdrew from showing his work publicly, and in time withdrew from photography altogether. In 1917 he retreated to a bedroom on the third floor of his family mansion where, Proust-like, he spent the remaining years of his life as a self-proclaimed invalid.

Day F. Holland  Maynard White 15 in 1911
Day with Maynard White, aged 15, in 1911

Photography left the pictorialist aesthetic behind; the loss of his early work in the 1904 fire and his own wilful withdrawal helped consign Day to oblivion. When modern photography began to set down its own history, Stieglitz and his followers simply wrote him out of the story. Ironically, or significantly, it is only now, when the discourse on sexuality, and not aesthetics, condemns Day for eroticizing of adolescents and Blacks, that his work should be rediscovered and accepted. We are now coming to appreciate the formal values of his images; perhaps, through their power, the desire which gave rise to them also may be rediscovered and find greater acceptance.


[1] Robert Michael Mapplethorpe (1946-89) was another American photographer controversial for most of his work being erotic. [Website footnote]




If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to greek.love.tta@gmail.com, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.