What can a photograph tell us?

Did you hear the news about the daguerreotype that is potentially an image of Emily Dickinson? It’s only the second known photograph of the reclusive poet, and it’s a very striking image. For some reason I am so drawn to it, and I can’t figure out why. Is it because she was so enigmatic, that we mainly only know her through her work?

When I meet an author, I already know them to an extent through (my interpretation of) their work, but I am still interested in meeting them nonetheless. Sometimes just to express my admiration of their work, sometimes because I feel we can connect, or I can learn something further from them. Meeting an author can give you insight, often, into their work. But what of a photograph?

Besides mere contextual details of dress etc. I suppose a photograph can give a certain impression of personality (depending on facial expression, gesture, etc., think of the photographs of Oscar Wilde) but that could be as much what we infer as what’s actually there. What do you think?

Pondering all this did just remind me of this from a couple of years ago. Are the authors in these photographs trying to communicate a certain message, or are they just doing what the photographer is telling them to do? These days we can take so many photos until we get the one that we want to represent who we are to the world. But with Emily Dickinson we just have these two images. Her work truly does speak for itself. Is there any author we could completely say that about now?

5 thoughts on “What can a photograph tell us?

  1. That is such a beautiful image. When I first looked at it, before I read the caption, I assumed Emily Dickinson was the woman on the right. The woman on the left seems so much lighter in mood. She looks like she’s about to smile. This isn’t the face I imagined for Emily Dickinson at all after reading her work, but it’s lovely… Thanks for sharing.

  2. Imagine trying to convince Miss Dickinson back then that people would be trying to prise open her persona from her photographs more than 150 years later. What might she have said?

    Yes, I’m sometimes suspicious of author photographs. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to present oneself in a public photograph in a manner that isn’t, in some way, a wilful distortion of oneself. On the other hand, the way a photograph is interpreted by an observer can sometimes be quite independent of the intentions of both the subject and the photographer.

    For my own part, I reckon the application of a jumper or plastic mackintosh over my bonce would be the best policy…

    • So many great words for head/face… bonce, mug, melon.

      Many of Dickinson’s poems are as enigmatic as she is, referring to some unknown object, event, person. Well, they are to me. Maybe she would like the idea of people absurdly trying to gauge something about her from her visage?

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