"For Flash and Click and Suddenness-": Emily Dickinson and the Photography-Effect
In 1999, Mary Elizabeth Kromer Bernhard published her essay "Lost and Found: Emily Dickinson's Unknown Daguerreotypist" in The New England Quarterly. Her research, based on evidence found in letters at the Jones Library as well as in historical documents such as The Hampshire and Franklin Express, discloses the identity of Dickinson's daguerreotypist-"enveloped in mystery for more than a century" (Bernhard 594)-as well as the precise conditions of her sitting. Most important, perhaps, Bernhard's research tracks the strange circulation of the Dickinson's daguerreotype image beyond the privacy of the Homestead into the public sphere, a transition coincident with the publication of the early editions of her work. The new evidence brought to light by Bernhard's research prompts further inquiry into both the haunting daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and into her complex relationship to the age of mechanical reproduction.
According to Bernhard, in 1846 the daguerrian artist William C. North took rooms at Amherst House where he spent the months between December and March photographing the residents of Amherst and the surrounding areas. North's first advertisement, appearing coincidentally on Dickinson's sixteenth birthday, 10 December 1846, in The Hampshire and Franklin Express, announced his intention of "executing Daguerreotype Miniatures in his acknowledged superior style" (qtd. in Bernhard 595). In the same advertisement, North also made explicit the connection between the daguerreotype and the memento mori, between the new technology of photography and the exquisite Victorian thanatology: "These Likenesses are true to nature, which renders them valuable, particularly to the surviving friends of the deceasedů.Secure the Shadow ere the substance fades" (qtd. in Bernhard 595).
The desire to acquire a memento mori may have been what initially prompted the Dickinsons to engage North's services. As Bernhard notes, Joel Norcross, Dickinson's maternal grandfather, had died in May of the past year, and his daughter, still deep in mourning, desired an image of him. The most promising option, outlined by Edward Dickinson, was to have a daguerreotype made from the oil portrait of her father then hanging in the family's estate in Monson. In a letter to Alfred Norcross dated 10 February 1847, he inquires, "Can it not be taken out of the gilt frame and wrapped up in several thicknesses of cloth & paper & sent up here, and returned when some of us go to Monson?" (qtd. in Bernhard 594). North took an impression of the portrait in the same month and only a few weeks before his departure from Amherst. But the double exposure of the painting, first removed from its gilt frame, then revealed by the action of iodine and mercury upon a sensitized silver plate, resulted only in a dimmer, flatter version of the original: the rays of light shining on the surface of the surviving plate are not "emanations" radiating directly from the interior of the portrait, or from its subject-target, but a super-added luminescence, the effect only of the photographic process, whose other most notable result is the lateral reversal of the figure.
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