Daguerreotype that may show Amherst poet Emily Dickinson creates stir

Last modified: Saturday, September 08, 2012

AMHERST - For decades, the only photographic image of Emily Dickinson shows her as a 16-year-old girl, still several years from the start of her prolific creation of poetry.

The possibility that a second daguerreotype has surfaced showing Dickinson at an older age in the late 1850s and on the cusp of her significance is generating excitement among those who study the famed Amherst poet.

Both the Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street and the archives and special collections at Amherst College's Frost Library are displaying a reproduction of a long-lost daguerreotype that, evidence so far suggests, may be a new view of the reclusive poet.

The interest in the image comes after Martha Nell Smith, a professor of English at the University of Maryland and a noted Dickinson scholar, presented the possibility of the new picture at this summer's annual Emily Dickinson International Society meeting in Cleveland, Ohio.

Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, said the daguerreotype, which she first saw in 2007, is a "strong candidate" to be proven as a genuine photograph of Dickinson.

"My view is enough research and investigation has been done to make this an intriguing possibility," Wald said. "There is compelling evidence and a compelling story around it."

But she notes that over the years many other photographs and images of Dickinson have been proposed but never proven to be pictures of the poet.

Slow progress

The daguerreotype shows what may be Dickinson on the left side with a woman identified as Kate Scott Turner Anthon, a family friend, on the right side.

It was purchased by a private collector, who remains anonymous, at an estate sale in Springfield in 1995.

The collector did extensive research into the portrait, including determining with almost certainty the identity of Anthon, before bringing it to Frost Library five years ago for a more detailed examination.

Michael Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Frost Library, said that since then, Mimi Dakin, an archives and special collections specialist, has provided assistance to the collector.

"It's been a slow, steady process," Kelly said.

The research has included making high resolution scans of both the collector's original daguerreotype and the only known daguerreotype depicting Dickinson, which was made in 1847.

These scans allowed Susan Pepin, an opthalmologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, to determine that the physical features, including Dickinson's eyes, right earlobe and configuration between her nose and upper lip, are nearly identical in both daguerreotypes.

The research continues to try to identify when, where and by whom the newly discovered daguerreotype was made. So far, according to the museum's website, J.C. Spooner, who advertised as late as 1859 that he was still making daguerreotypes by request, is the likely photographer. Anthon was in Amherst at that time and is known to have been a friend to the Dickinson family.

Work is also being done to cross-reference fabrics housed at the Dickinson museum with those Dickinson is wearing in the image.

Older Dickinson

Wald said the discovery of a new image of Dickinson could be an important development for scholars and those interested in Dickinson, who have long craved more insight into her. When Dickinson's poetry was first published in the 1890s, it didn't take long for letters she wrote to be collected and published. People today still visit her homestead to better understand the world in which Dickinson lived, Wald said.

"There haven't been many visual resources to fix an image of this poet in our minds," Wald said.

The original daguerreotype came to Amherst College in 1956 as a donation from Millicent Todd Bingham, who inherited a Dickinson collection from her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Besides the daguerreotype, there are only two other confirmed images of Dickinson, both at a younger age. The first, Wald said, is an oil painting by Otis A. Bullard of the three Dickinson children that was completed when Emily Dickinson was 9 years old and is housed at Harvard University. The second is a silhouette cutout made by Amherst College student Charles Temple when Dickinson was 14. Frost Library also has a lock of Dickinson's hair.

Wald said to see an older, more mature Dickinson, who was at the start of an emotional struggle which fueled her poetic output, could be revelatory.

"The image can be dated to roughly 1859. At that point is the beginning of a flood of creativity," Wald said.

"If it's authenticated, we get to look at the person writing that poetry."

Avid interest

Having people come forward with purported images of Dickinson, though, is not unusual. In fact, Kelly said it happens two to three times a year, but most are obviously not Dickinson.

"This was the first where people have said, 'That looks like her,'" Kelly said.

The most recent such alleged Dickinson image to cause a stir was the so-called "Gura," an image purchased by Philip Gura, a University of North Carolina professor, on eBay. Because of the continued controversy over its authenticity, the private collector may have held off in coming forward to seek research assistance for 12 years, Kelly said.

Kelly said he hopes that anyone with information that either supports or refutes the claims that this could be a new image of Dickinson will bring it to the archives and special collections.

"What we want is a whole bunch of voices to come into the conversation," Kelly said. "Our role in this is to encourage people to ask questions and to have a debate."

Kelly said he is as fascinated by the excitement the image has generated.

"The interesting question is why are people so obsessed with finding a photograph of her," Kelly said.

He speculates that Dickinson was living on the edge of a period when popular photographs began being taken, notably during the Civil War, and that her brother, Austin Dickinson, was photographed many times.

Both the museum and archives expect to have copies of the newly discovered daguerreotype on display for the coming months.

Wald said there could be a surge of interest in Dickinson, as, if it is confirmed, this will allow those who love Dickinson a chance to see a different face and a different presence of the poet.

"It gives people a lot to think about," Wald said.


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