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Emily Dickinson in Photographs

Do we need to see the poet's face to understand the poems?


Emily Dickinson, Daguerreotype, ca. 1847
Original Daguerreotype is in the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Can we apprehend the poems by reading the poet’s face? Is it necessary to know about the poet’s life before we can understand the layered meaning of his/her words? Readers of Sappho or Homer might answer “no”—yet where we have just a little information about a poet’s life, or just one or two authenticated pictures of a poet’s face, as with Emily Dickinson, those tidbits are the focus of endless fascination.

Until recently the picture here was the only known photographic image of the young Miss Emily’s face, a single daguerreotype of the “Belle of Amherst” at the age of 16, a pale, demure, delicate-featured face, dark hair parted in the center and pulled straight back over her ears, gazing clear-eyed into the camera with an expression that is neither simpering nor solemn. The Emily Dickinson Kindle Portrait” at Jason Gignac’s “Moored at Sea” blog for notes on this awful phenomenon.) In a 2005 essay entitled “Why Emily Dickinson Would Not Smile For the Camera,” Ripon College English professor David Graham offered a speculative perspective on Dickinson’s “distrust of photography,” likely the reason there are so few images of her face: “In this as in other things, Dickinson anticipates the century in which she never lived.”

Other photographs supposed to be of Dickinson have emerged, but not been fully verified—in 2000, University of North Carolina American Studies professor Philip Gura acquired what might have been a second photograph of Miss Emily. His 2004 article, “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on eBay,” lovingly recounts his discovery of the picture and his subsequent attempts to prove its authenticity, which has not yet been accepted by most Dickinson scholars.

Then, in 2012, word came out from two respected institutions of Dickensoniana that there is another photograph, a view of Emily Dickinson in middle age, in old-fashioned dress for the time but her demeanor mature, confident and direct, sitting with her friend Kate Scott Turner:

from the Emily Dickinson Museum:
New Dickinson Daguerreotype?
“Why might the reclusive Emily Dickinson, famous for claiming to have no photograph, have succumbed to posing for a portrait with her arm around her friend Kate Turner? How might such a daguerreotype have found its way to a Springfield junk dealer? Why was there no mention of such a photograph in contemporary documentation? Answers to these and other questions are likely to become a new quest for Dickinson scholars.”

from Amherst College:
The World Is Not Acquainted with Us,” Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner
“If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.”

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