September 10, 2012
New Emily Dickinson photo?
by Sal Robinson
Some people are phlegmatic about this, but I am not phlegmatic about this. The New York Times even buries the news behind a comment about Pynchon photos, but Pynchon photos are small, tiny, not-even-edible-even-if-you-lick-your-fingers-and-try-to-pick-them-up-that-way crumbs compared to this: a new photo of Emily Dickinson has been found. If you remember correctly, there is in existence one and only one known photograph of Emily Dickinson, taken when she was 16 years old, after an illness, and neither she nor her family ever thought it was a particularly good photo of her. You know, this one, peaked, skinny Emily:
Now this has turned up:
Which the unnamed New England collector who bought the daguerrotype at an “estate cleanout” sale from a Springfield, MA, junk dealer in 1995 believes to be a photo of Emily (on the left) and her friend Kate Scott Turner in 1859, when Dickinson was 29 and right in the thick of putting together her famous fascicles.
Many questions remain: why is the purported Emily wearing clothes that would be more typical of the late 1840s, if the photo was taken ten years later? Will the inferonasal corneal light reflex and left nasolabial fold comparisons hold up? (Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College, says—and you gotta love him for this—“In Photoshop, it’s a crazy-perfect fit.”) Will Erroll Morris do a four-part Opinionator analysis?
It has long been believed that there are no other photos of Dickinson, because she said there weren’t, in her correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, but this of course has only stoked the frenzy to find one. Also, if you look at that letter (from July 1862), it does sound a bit like Dickinson would rather describe herself to Higginson than send a photo, even if she had one: “my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves” being a hell of a lot more enticing than “Here is a photo of me in an old dress.”
The last time a potential second photo of Dickinson was unearthed, which was this one:
the unearther, professor and collector Philip Gura, ended up with forensic analysis that cautiously suggested that the sitter could be Dickinson, but no provenance for the photo, nothing definite. “I’m nobody,” indeed.
What do you think?
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.