The extremely controversial F. Holland Day is all but forgotten today as his fin de siécle images of young nude men—like the one pictured here— were eclipsed by rivals such as Alfred Steigltiz and other moderns. An American, he was the first in the U.S.A. to advocate that photography should be considered a fine art.
Day spent much time among poor immigrant children in Boston, tutoring them in reading and mentoring them. One in particular, the 13-year-old Lebanese immigrant Kahlil Gibran, went on to fame as the author of The Prophet.
Fred Holland Day was a wealthy eccentric and philanthropist from Massachusetts. As partner in the publishing firm Copeland and Day, which he founded in 1884, Day indulged his passion for English literature, publishing exquisite small-edition, hand-bound volumes by the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Day's friend Oscar Wilde. Although Copeland and Day published ninety-eight books and periodicals, the firm was never financially successful.
Day began to photograph in 1886; and he wrote extensively about photography's position as a fine art and organized international photography exhibitions to further his claim. He asked: "And if it chance that [a] picture is beautiful, by what name shall we call it? Shall we say that it is not a work of art, because our vocabulary calls it a photograph?"
Frederick Holland Day's photographs of the male body concentrated on mythological and religious subject matter. In these photographs he tried to reveal a transcendence of spirit through an aesthetic vision of androgynous physical perfection. He reveled in the sensuous hedonistic beauty of what he saw as the perfection of the youthful male body. In the photograph "St. Sebastian," for example, the young male body is presented for our gaze in the combined ecstasy and agony of suffering. In his mythological photographs Holland Day used the idealism of Ancient Greece as the basis for his directed and staged images. These are not the bodies of muscular men but of youthful boys (ephebes) in their adolescence; they seem to have an ambiguous sexuality. The models genitalia are rarely shown and when they are, the penis is usually hidden in dark shadow, imbuing the photographs with a sexual mystery. The images are suffused with an erotic beauty of the male body never seen before, a photographic reflection of a seductive utopian beauty seen through the desiring eye of a homosexual photographer.
His style was Pictorialist, and he favored platinum prints, which are distinguished by their fine detail and ability to render a full range of soft tones. He lost interest in photography when a shortage of platinum during World War I made printing prohibitively expensive and eventually impossible. He died twenty years later, in relative obscurity.