Frederick Holland Day


F. HOLLAND DAY was born in Norwood, Massachusetts on July 8th 1964. He was a cultivated and sensitive man of independent means. As well as studying painting, he was an admirer of Keats, owning a fine collection of the poet's manuscripts, letters and early editions. He published books over 100 books, a gentleman-hobbyist, (1893-9), co-founding the Boston publishing house of Copeland and Day.

Day was the American publisher of the then scandalous works of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, most notably, Wilde's Salome illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Other titles include The Yellow Book, also illustrated by Beardsley; and The Black Rider and Other Lines by Stephen Crane. A bibliophile, publisher, photographer and aficionado of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Day's publishing firm, Copeland and Day, is often compared to William Morris's Kelmscott Press.

Experts consider Day to be one of the most important photographic artists in the history of the medium; one who remains influential in current photographic circles. Day was the first in the U.S.A. to advocate that photography should be considered a fine art. At the turn of the century, his influence and reputation as a photographer rivaled that of Alfred Stieglitz. His photographs allude to classical antiquity in manner, composition and often in theme. He often made only a single print from a negative. He used only the platinum process, being unsatisfied with any other, and lost interest in photography when platinum became unobtainable following the Russian Revolution. His photographs remain striking today, and his influence as a promoter of photography as a fine art, a rivaled that of Alfred Stieglitz.

F Holland Day was an eccentric who sought to express his ideas on life and art through the medium of photography, a pursuit he took up in 1887. He regarded Classical Greece as the ideal and reflected this in his work in which he pursued an intensive study of the human form, attempting to represent physical perfection.

The more Day worked with photography, the more deeply he became obsessed with it as an art form. In January 1896 he was elected a member of the LINKED RING brotherhood, which aimed to promote photography as a visual art. In 1899, with his cousin, Alvin Langdon Coburn and his mother, he went to England, renting a studio and darkroom in London.

During the summer of 1899 Day worked on a series of photographs devoted to sacred subjects. Some 250 negatives were made, including studies of the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, the Entombment and the Resurrection and others showing incidents connected with the Stations of the Cross. He regarded 25 of these as having been fairly successful and a dozen as really successful. He himself posed as Jesus Christ, having fasted until his features and body were emaciated; he grew his hair and beard for over a year in preparation for the photographs. Neighbors in Norwood, Massachusetts assisted him in an outdoor photographic reenactment of the Crucifixion. This culminated in his series of self-photographs, The Seven Words, depicting the seven last words of Christ.

Several of the studies required groups of people, and Day said that the posing of them was a long and arduous task. The models were his friends and professional actors, who wore specially imported antique costumes. Exhibitions of Day's Sacred Art photographs in 1899-1900 brought interesting reactions. Some art critics were prepared to accept photography as an art medium for portraying such subjects, while in general, photographers were strongly opposed to it.

In 1900 Day was responsible for arranging for a major exhibition, The New School of American Photography, in London:. Until this time, Alfred Stieglitz deemed himself the arbiter of what answered to the name of ‘American photography'. Stieglitz now deemed Day a potential rival and refused to support the exhibition. Both aimed to establish photography as a pictorial art. This rupture might explain why Day never joined the PHOTO-SECESSION, founded by Stieglitz in 1902.

Another of Day's imaginative series illustrated the legend of Orpheus, in which the exotic models including his protégé, Khalil Gibran, adapted Grecian mode. His cousin, the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, said: ‘To be in the company of this intellectual and artistic man was an education in itself ... In his house, on elegant Beacon Hill (Boston), Day used to exhibit his photographs in an incense-laden atmosphere to the élite of Boston society.'

From 1896 through 1898 Day experimented with religious themes, using himself as a model for Jesus. Neighbors in Norwood, Massachusetts assisted him in an outdoor photographic reenactment of the Crucifixion. This culminated in his series of self-photographs, The Seven Words, depicting the seven last words of Christ.

A disastrous fire about 1914 destroyed Day's personal archive, with the exception of those photographs that he had given to friends, donated to the Library of Congress in 1907 or donated to other collections. All his early photographs were lost. By 1917 he had withdrawn from society, becoming a recluse.

Day's works has been the subject of two retrospective exhibitions, one at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1998); and the other at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Because the fire consumed so much of his work, his works are in few, though very distinguished public collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington; National Portrait Gallery, and the Library of Congress, Washington DC

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View synoptic biography below.

St. Sebastian

St. Sebastian
Platinum print

9.325x7.325 inch
Deacquisitioned as duplicate from the Library of Congress
Download Fact Sheet

‘The New School of American Photography', Brit. J. Phot. (20 Nov 1900)
‘Opening Address' [to the Royal Photographic Society], Phot. J. (21 Oct 1900)
‘Photography as a Fine Art', Photo-Era (March 1900)
R. C. Hazell: ‘A Visit to Mr. F. Holland Day', Amat. Photographer (27 Oct 1899)
E. F. Clattenburg: The Photographic Work of F. Holland Day (Wellesley, 1975)
M. Harker: The Linked Ring: The Secession in Photography, 1892-1910 (London, 1979)
J. W. Kraus: Messrs. Copeland and Day (Philadelphia, 1979)
E. Jussim: Slave to Beauty (Boston, 1981)
Hist. Phot., xviii/4 (1994), pp. 299-386 [special issue devoted to F. Holland Day, with contributions by E. Balk, P. G. Berman, J. Crump, V. P. Curtis, B. L. Michaels and J

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