In 1896, Jessie Fremont Beale, a social worker with the Boston Children's Aid Society, wrote to a trusted volunteer concerning a needy Lebanese youth named Kahlil Gibran. Recognizing the boy's artistic talent but fearing that his potential would be lost, Beale turned to Fred Holland Day to assist the then thirteen year old. The support and guidance Day provided and the friendship that developed is well documented in numerous biographies of Gibran, who went on to considerable fame as a poet (today best known for his work The Prophet). A lesser known tale is that of Fred Holland Day himself, a publisher and photographer, who generously aided countless young people and their families at the turn of the last century.
A major retrospective of Day's photographic oeuvre ended its run at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in March and this summer travels to museums in Amsterdam and Munich. It is a welcome re-examination of one of the world's master photographers in the Pictorialist tradition. Day's subject matter ranged from sensitive portraits and figure studies to allegorical depictions of classic subjects. Perhaps his best known works were his ‘sacred' studies, including a bold series on the crucifixion of Christ for which he was his own model. All were well represented in the exhibition Art and the Camera: The Photographs of F. Holland Day. The exhibition also introduced to the public some of Day's philanthropic activity, a dimension of his career that deserves elaboration as it shaped both his life and his art.
Born in 1864, the only child of wealthy but socially liberal parents, Fred Day was teaching Sunday School at the Parmenter Street mission in Boston's north end while still in his teens. By 1889, he was enthusiastically writing to friends about the activities of his "Parmenter St. cherubs." His growing concern for the fate of Boston's underprivileged immigrant children also led him to volunteer as a "friendly visitor" with the Children's Aid Society's home libraries project. Devised by Beale, the project involved placing a bookcase filled with juvenile books and magazines in the homes of the poor. A "friendly visitor" would meet with the children weekly to discuss their reading. Gracious and personable, Day was quickly embraced by a number of families. Kate Brown, a friend of Day's, recalled him standing "in the midst of a flock of little girls almost crazy with delight over the dolls and rubber boots he has given them," and he became well-known for taking street-car loads of children on country excursions. He was so popular among the children that one Gibran biographer likened Day to a Pied Piper moving about Boston's ghetto neighborhoods.
From 1893 to 1899, Day and a friend, Herbert Copeland, published volumes of poetry, essays, and children's books. Their firm, Copeland & Day, was a significant participant in the Arts and Crafts Movement in Boston, a movement which combined artistic achievement with social responsibility and reform. In this tradition, Day introduced his settlement house charges to the cultural institutions of Boston's symphony, art museum, and theatre. He also encouraged particularly gifted adolescents, like Gibran, by sponsoring their education and employment.
While still in the publishing business, Day's interest in the arts turned seriously to photography. Several of his young proteges became the models for his "subject pictures," a type of
Following a 1904 studio fire that destroyed his negatives, art collections, and hundreds of prints, Day traveled to the Hampton Institute in Virginia. The journey kept his charitable work alive and renewed his artistic sensibilities. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (alma mater of Booker T. Washington and now Hampton University) educated African and Native Americans as teachers, agricultural and trade workers. Day had been invited by the school's camera club to offer advice and critique their work. Correspondence indicates that he met with students of Hampton and its affiliated elementary school in informal settings as well. These encounters allowed him to reveal once again his unbiased affection towards and unerring rapport with young people. The naturalness and ease of the images taken at Hampton demonstrate Day's extraordinary empathy with his models as he captured close-up the thoughtful faces confidently looking into the future. While the Hampton photographs are seen as a bridge between his early portraits and later, less contrived work, it was at his summer home in Maine that Day's camera opened fully to embrace the coincident joys of youth, nature, and beauty. At the same time, his philanthropic efforts took on a new, more ambitious, form.
After years of anonymity, F. Holland Day's artistic reputation has been reestablished with the current traveling exhibition helping to ensure his rightful place in photographic history. But Day's work with Boston's urban poor should be recognized as well. Perhaps the words of one young protege, Bert O'Brien, written to Day in 1921, are a fitting epitaph for a good and decent man who, in his own way, tried to ease the burden of ghetto life for so many:
"Oh Boy!! For those good old days at Little Good Harbor; once again those happy hours with you; those twilight naps on the window seat; those joyous moments with oars or paddle; or those sound sleeping nights in the best little Chalet in the world....Tho the days and years are fast fleeting [I] shall never forget you, or the many many good times your kind generosity enabled me to have."