I keep reading about the new Emily Dickinson show at the Morgan Library& Museum in Manhattan and I can't wait to see it. It's called "I'm Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson". (It's there until May 21.) It has all sorts of news and gossip about the mysterious and reclusive poet. As the NY Post commented "This is shaping up as a good year for the "Belle of Amherst" who never married and died, aged 55...In April we'll see Cynthia Nixon play her in the film 'A Quiet Passion.'" Reading this inspired me to re-post a photo essay I published seven years ago about my near miss at acquiring a photographic image of Emily--which, to antique photo collectors like myself, would be the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.
(Please click on the photos to enlarge them.)
are a few photographs of long-dead celebrities that are so rare, people
will pay close to a million dollars for them. If you come across a
previously unknown image of, say, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, John
Brown, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James, to name a few, you have
discovered a real treasure.
One of these iconic images
would be a new portrait of Emily Dickinson. That’s what a professor at
the University of North Carolina, Philip F. Gura, thought he had found
on an E-Bay auction that he won on April 12, 2000. It was an albumen
photograph (the bottom row above).
Later Gura wrote a
delightful description of his torturous six-month search to validate
the image. It’s called “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An
Adventure on eBay.”
Read it on http://www.common-place.org/vol-04/no-02/gura/
wrote about Emily Dickinson: “Even though she lived when the new
invention of photography was changing the ways people thought about
themselves, there is only one known photographic likeness of her, taken
by William C. North. It was made between December 1846 and March 1847,
and shows a thin teenager suffering from what her family took as the
first symptoms of tuberculosis.
“A second photograph of Dickinson has long been the Holy Grail of artifacts for scholars in my field…”
paid $481 to win the albumen photograph with “Emily Dickinson” written
on the back. As soon as it arrived from the eBay seller, the professor
set about trying to validate it. He soon had calls from The New York Times and the New Yorker, who were vying to be the first with the news of his discovery.
NPR and many papers around the world were knocking at his door. After
much trouble, Gura finally found a forensic anthropologist who was able
to measure and compare various anatomical landmarks on the two faces
(the original verified dag above left and the new-found albumen photo
in the third row). This seems so much quicker and easier on TV shows
like CSI and Bones!
Meanwhile two historians of
costume analyzed the sitter’s clothing and determined that the albumen
photo was a copy of an original daguerreotype taken sometime between
1848 and 1853.
In the one verified image of Emily — the
daguerreotype at the upper left-- she is either sixteen or 17 years
old. It was taken at Mt. Holyoke and is in the possession of Amherst
After all his research, Prof. Gura still
doesn’t have a positive "yes" answer. But he believes that it is
indeed Emily and quotes one reporter: “Although the forensic analysis of
Gura’s photo strongly suggests the woman is ED, no one can say for
sure. By the same token, no one apparently can say that the woman is
Something that was not reported by international media, (but is reported here exclusively on A Rolling Crone),
is that I had a very similar experience to Philip Gura’s. But it
happened exactly four months earlier. On Jan. 13, 2000, I purchased
on eBay a 1/6 plate daguerreotype of a young woman who looked strikingly
like Emily Dickinson. The famous verified Emily image is on the left
above, on the right is my dag, which I purchased for $127.50 from a
seller in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
The eBay auction had the title “Fine Dag – Lovely Woman – Emily Dickinson???”
the seller was not making any claims that he couldn’t prove: “Purchased
some time ago from an estate auctioned [sic] near Amherst, Mass. A
fine daguerreotype…an intriguing and attractive young woman. …Some say
she is, some say she looks like, Emily Dickinson. And some say not.
Draw your own conclusion (there is one surviving dag of this noted
Amherst author.) A fine daguerreotype either way.”
studied the small photo on eBay and tried to compare it to the one
verified dag. Like Philip Gura some months later, I waited in suspense
for it to arrive. I imagined the excitement, the glory, the press
attention if it proved to be an actual second image of the Belle of
You must admit, looking at the two dags side
by side, that the resemblance is striking. Even the style of dress and
hair and the pose itself. (Emily is near a book and holding what I
think is a flower in the official dag. In my image the woman has an
adorable beaded bag hanging from her arm. They even seem to be wearing
the same kind of dark bracelet, which may or may not be a mourning
bracelet made of human hair.)
But I didn’t have to
consult forensic anthropologists and costume historians to validate my
image when it came. I took one look at the actual dag that lay in my
hand and I realized she couldn’t be the real Emily, because, judging
from the one true photograph, Emily had dark brown eyes and the woman in
MY image had pale blue eyes.
I should have known this,
because Emily once wrote to an admirer (who asked for a portrait) this
description of herself: “I…am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is
bold, like the Chestnut Bur-and my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass,
that the guest leaves – would this do just as well?”
mine is not a priceless iconic image, and the world’s press is not
about to come calling — as it did four months later when Professor Gura
discovered his image of ED on eBay. But I like ”my” Emily anyway and
would never part with her, because this woman was a contemporary,
perhaps a neighbor — perhaps even a relative -- of the real Emily. She
certainly has a remarkable resemblance to the mysterious and secretive
Belle of Amherst, who wore white and refused to come out of her room in
the last years of her life, talking to visitors through a closed door.
then after her death, her sister Lavina discovered the 1800 poems
hidden away in her drawer. The first volume was published four years
after Emily died in 1886 at the age of 55.
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.