5.29.2009

The Emily Dickinson Kindle Portrait

Most people who read this blog probably know I'm a big Emily Dickinson devotee, so I won't wax sentimental. However, a matter has come to my attention, a matter of serious import, and since Ms Dickinson is dead, it behooves me to defend her honour. I am talking, of course about the picture of Emily Dickinson that pops up on the Amazon Kindle screensaver, which is giving poor Madame Dickinson a bad name. The thing is, look at that picture, it's creepy. It's not a nice picture. It looks like Emily Dickinson had a love child with a lace doily. Ick, right? Well, let's look at it for a minute, in better detail: Those of you out there who've ever used photoshop will, doubtless, begin knitting your brow now, but let's take a quick look together, shall we? Witness those eyes, isn't that strange how her left eye and right eye are different shapes? And what's with the big smudgy white place around her lips? Then, look at the shadow. There must be some strong light on there, so how come her nose is shadowing downd and to the left and her lips are shadowing straight left? Hrm... it must be DOCTORED! Yes, indeed it is doctored. The Harvard archives, in fact (where much of the Dickinson errata of the world is stored) hold records saying as much. In fact, they have the photo in it's stages, as it went through the doctoring process. Witness:

* (1) Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Portrait, 1978. 1 item: photograph. Caption on recto: "Photograph of the unretouched and unframed daguerreotype [ca. 1847] of E.D. owned by the Amherst College Library. Presented by Amherst College Library [March 31,] 1978. Permissions sh[oul]d be granted only by Amherst College Library." This item is for reference use only, not to be reproduced. *99M-3. * (2) Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Portrait, undated. 2 items: 1 photograph and 1 negative. Photograph annotated on verso: "Emily Dickinson of Amherst when about 17 years old taken from a daguerreotype which her sister Cousin Lavinia Dickinson gave me to have copied, Gertrude M. Graves. Sep 23. I am sending today another copy of this to her niece Mme. Bianchi. G.M Graves." Image is possibly slightly altered from image in item (1). *46M-287. * (3) Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Portrait [with altered hairline], undated. 4 items: 3 photographs and 1 negative. This image is an altered version of the ED daguerreotype. Labeled "first stage" by L.B. Graves. *46M-288. * (4) Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Portrait [with fluffy hairstyle and white scarf-type collar], undated. 2 items: 1 photograph and 1 negative. This image is a further altered version of the ED daguerreotype. Labeled "intermediate stage" by L.B. Graves. *46M-286. * (5) Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886. Portrait [with fluffy hairstyle, stand-up ruffled collar, and white bodice], undated. 3 items: 3 photographs (2 framed). This image is the final altered version of the ED daguerreotype. Item 2 is framed in black and has label on verso: "No. A11382 Doll & Richards. 2 Park Street, Boston." Item 3 is framed in brown and has label on verso: "No. 8276 Bigelow & Jordan ... Boston, Mass." Label includes Ms. annotatations: "Picture of Emily Dickinson owned by Gertrude M. Graves [illegible] Boston, Mass." Labeled "final state" by L.B. Graves. *46M-289.
So, that is the original daguerrotype? Let's put them side by side: Now look close, can you see it? The image was reversed, the hair was pasted on (look close, you can see the shadow of her original hairline, in fact), and they put on the frou-frou. Then they drew a buttload of makeup on her, dolled out her eyes to anime width, and attempted to make the shadows more dramatic, thereby gifting her with a shadow of a moustache (in all fairness, doesn't this picture look more like Frieda Kahlo? Only without the authenticity made Frieda beautiful) In truth, just so we can clear this up now, there are four ACTUAL images known to exist of Ms D. Lets lay them out, real fast: The childhood portrait: The silhouette: The teen picture: The recently discovered older picture: (in the interest of full disclosure, there is some scholarly debate about whether this is really Emily D) Then, special notice of the lock of hair, which is KIND of like a picture: Amazon, all these images are lovely, the Dag and the silhouette are fairly iconic and recognizable - why did you have to pick the one picture that's a blatant fake? I do not know, I will not profess to know, and I don't mean to imply that Amazon made these alterations - this horrible picture has been 'round since, I believe, the 70's. I would admit it's possible that Amazon didn't even realize it was a fake. But I will tell you why the image frustrates me so much - obviously (while they, in my eyes, failed) the picture that you see on your Kindle is meant to doll up Emily Dickinson, to make her pretty. And I'm left with a sick feeling, like we all need to have a pretty poetess if we're to love her. Is the image of Dickinson that's genuine somewhat unsettling, unconventional, even, I suppose, conventionally somewhat unattractive, in many people's minds? Sure. Who cares? Lord, have you seen Charles Dickens lately? Yeah, imagine kissing THAT every morning. But who cares? We don't worship Dickens because he was a hottie. He was a great author. And having read Dickens, I like his face now. It's got this slightly dopey, but deeply, stridently genuine face, that LOOKS like Dickens. He looks exactly like himself. And Emily Dickinson's poetry? It doesn't look like Ms. Frou-Frou-Curly-Mop. Emily Dickinson was not delicate and pretty and tra-la-la flowers. There's a part of our culture, though - and I struggle with it too - that still... well, it NEEDS her to be frou-frou. Frou-frou we can handle, frou-frou is acceptable, we can process it. Strange and striking, that's for boys, right? Keep on fighting Frieda Kahlo, Emily Dickinson, Emma Goldman, all you odd, beautiful souls, aware of and happy in your peculiarities, battle ain't over yet, 'pparently.

7 comments:

Lori Tiron-Pandit said...

I've come over to check your post about Emily Dickinson, and surprise, you wrote on a subject I was curious about. I had learnt that the portrait of her as a teenager was the only one there was, beside the childhood photos. I also found out about the other one, which is still under scrutiny. But I obviously found on google the "Dracula's bride" one that you talk about, and I was wondering about it. Thanks for clearing that up.

But I do think she looks quite beautiful in the original portrait. Stern and serious, yes, but beautiful nonetheless. And Frieda was not that bad either, in my opinion, although she loved to portray herself uglier than she really was.

Leaving that aside, it seems that at least on today's publishing scene, it's better if the author has a beautiful, easily marketable image. Everyone should better have sex-symbol potential! It's crazy.

Jason Gignac said...

By all means, I don't mean to imply that Ms Kahlo OR Ms Dickinson were unattractive - just that they don't match the theoretical optimum idea of a 'pretty girl.' Personally, imperfection is, inmy mind, what makes people beautifully. The wide space between Emily's eyes, and there slight crookedness, for instance, are beautiful. And, besides, once you know a person, their face becames just a reflection of they are to you - so someone is beautiful if they are a beautiful person. Thanks for dropping by :).

Rev. Elsa said...

Ever since I bought my Kindle in May 2009 I've been bothered by its photo of Emily Dickinson. It just doesn't look like her. Not that I've met her! But I've not been able to find much that indicates it is real. Emily's photo popped up again today on my Kindle and I asked, "Do you think this is Emily Dickinson?" No one thought that it did. Where does it come from? What does Amazon say?

Jason Gignac said...

Amazon has never said anything about it - and in their defense, it existed long before they started using it. I THINK it was created (or at least popularized) back int he 70's, though I don't have a source to back that up. I've seen it in a number of places online by folks who believe it to be a genuine, undoctored photo, I guess I just figured Amazon would know better :D.

Anonymous said...
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poetbrezina@yaoo.com said...

I'm at work and don't have the book or source in front of me, but after Emily's death, this portrait originally was created at her sister Vinnie's request of another artist to create a likeness of Emily as she actually had looked in life rather than wearing the hair style of the time period and posing for portraits of the time period.

Jason Gignac said...

I would LOVE to see your source! I have never heard this before?