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  • Emerson’s Photographic Thinking
  • Sean Ross Meehan

The fate of my books is like the impression of my face. My acquaintances as long back as I can remember, have always said, "Seems to me you look a little thinner than when I saw you last."

—Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks (1850; 11: 214)

By many accounts, including his own, Emerson was not a photogenic man. There is a curious and telling exchange found within the celebrated legacy of Emerson's correspondence with Thomas Carlyle that speaks to his apparent photographic misrepresentativeness. At Emerson's request, Carlyle had sent a photographic likeness—"Yes, you shall have that sun-shadow, a Daguerreotype likeness" Carlyle writes him in 1846—which Emerson would receive with great pleasure: "I have what I have wished," Emerson would write back of the photograph's arrival. "I confirm my recollections & make new observations: it is life to life. Thanks to the Sun." Emerson, however, would have trouble returning the favor. He would write to Carlyle, explaining the delay as a problem he was experiencing in having his own likeness taken, "I was in Boston the other day, and went to the best reputed Daguerreotypist, but though I brought home three transcripts of my face, the housemates voted them rueful, supremely ridiculous, I must sit again, or . . . I must not sit again, not being of the right complexion which Daguerre & iodine delight in" (Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle 398). After trying and failing yet again, Emerson would send a photographic image whose persistent misrepresentativeness Carlyle would confirm in receiving it. "This Image is altogether unsatisfactory, illusive, and even in some measure tragical to me! First of all, it is a bad Photograph; no eyes discernible, at least one of the eyes not, except in rare favourable lights. . . . I could not at first, nor can I yet with perfect [End Page 27]


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Figure 1.

Frontispiece portrait from the 1903 Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Caption reads: "From daguerreotype in 1847, now in the possession of the Carlyle family, England." Courtesy of Hickman-Johnson-Furrow Library, Morningside College.

[End Page 28]

decisiveness, bring out any feature completely recalling to me the old Emerson." Second of all, Carlyle goes on to write, the bad image leaves him with the uncanny feeling of Emerson's death: "seems smiling on me as if in mockery, 'Dost know me friend: I am dead, thou seest, and distant, and forever hidden from thee;—I belong already to the Eternities, and thou recognisest me not!' On the whole, it is the strangest feeling I have" (CEC 464).1

With an eye to this type of exchange, Oliver Wendell Holmes would go on to imagine such photographic reproduction and circulation of likenesses as a new form of friendship. Writing in 1863 in the third of his series of articles on photography, Holmes speculates, "A photographic intimacy between two persons who never saw each other's faces (that is, in Nature's original positive, the principal use of which, after all, is to furnish negatives from which portraits may be taken) is a new form of friendship" ("Doings" 15). The photographic friendship with Carlyle provides a rich example of Emerson's first-hand accounting of that new experience of intimacy through distance and absence that photographic communication would offer Emerson's "ocular" age (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5: 328). But in the apparent failure of that intimacy—the "illusive" image that fails to represent Emerson to Carlyle familiarly or faithfully—there is the suggestion of a more significant experience of photography that Emerson reflects and meditates upon in his thought and work. Taking up those experiences and engagements of the nineteenth-century's newest representational medium, this essay argues that Emerson's reflections on photography constitute a significant example of early observations of the new medium and its cultural influence. But even more than these cultural reflections, photography in Emerson's writing marks a crucial figure—a medium, so to say—for the recognition of creative genius and its "negatively electric" mode of communication that Emerson will name in "Intellect," "the power of picture or expression" (Essays and Poems 417, 423...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 27-58
Launched on MUSE
2006-06-19
Open Access
No
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