Of cookie kittens and amazon warriors

Figure 1 – Cookie kittens, IPhone photograph, (c) DE Wolf 2017.

What could be sweeter than a basket full of kittens? The photograph of Figure 1 is a hint. The answer, arguably, is a basket full of cookie kittens. Note I did not say kitten cookies, which are liable to be catnip and liver flavored, which could turn you off to cookies for ever, or at least a long time.

I found these at my local grocery store and snapped this less than perfectly framed image with my IPhone 6. I could not find any suitable quotes about cookie kittens; so the old Irish nursery rhyme must suffice.

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”

However, the story cannot end there. We have not connected cookie kittens with amazon warriors. As is often the case with nursery rhymes, the origin of the limerick is obscure., and is, in fact, a fascinating story in and of itself. Clearly, it leads to the term “Killkenny Cat,” a tenacious fighter, ready to go at it to the end. 

In early Irish legend the vicinity of Kilkenny is associated with a monster cat, named Banghaisgidheach, who made its home in the Dunmore Caves in Kilkenny County. In the ancient Book of Leinster the amazon warrior Aithbel overcame the cat monster of Luchtigern. Or more specifically, in English at least:

“Aithbel, she was a jewel of a woman, mother of Ercoil, the wife of Midgna, Who killed the ten Fomorians in the strand at Tonn Chlidna, Who burned the seven wild men in the glen at Sliabh Eibhlenn, Who scattered the black fleet against which the men of Ireland failed, Who hunted the red hag that drowned her in the midst of the Barrow, Who trampled on the luchthigern in the door of Derc Ferna.”

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Beauty is not caused. It is.

Figure 1 – Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson 1846/7. Original in the collection of Yale University. Public domain.

“Beauty is not caused. It is.” Such were the words of American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). And if you consider the words for a moment, you come to realize that they define our artistic endeavors as photographers. Seek beauty in all its forms and in all its places – realizing that it is everywhere.

I came to the subject of Emily Dickinson as a follow-up to my blog about her English contemporary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), in the American Age of Crinolines. People say that they don’t understand or don’t like poetry. But really poetry is always there, like the wind in the forest, whispering greater meaning to us and to our lives. I’d like to think that photography does the same.

Emily Dickinson is local to us in New England, having been born in Amherst, Massachusetts. And we pride ourselves in a common spirit of resilience.  She attended the Amherst Academy for seven years as a youth, and also briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. However, she soon returned to her family home in Amherst, where she became a famous recluse, noted for wearing white and her reluctance to greet guests at her home. Indeed, most of her close friendships were carried out by letter – epistolary intimacy.

Figure 1, a daguerreotype, is the only known (authenticated) portrait of Emily other than as a child. It was taken at Mount Holyoke in either 1846 or 47, when she was 17 years old. The original is held by the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers at Yale University. The photographer, as is so often the case, is unknown.

We are taken by so many delicacies. A pretty, young girl, a modest, yet flattering, dress, a delicate ribbon around her neck. Is that a flower in her elegant hands? Her lips are slightly awry. You must wonder about her future reclusive lifestyle. Like Barrett Browning, we know Emily’s heart through her verse.

But what do we really know? Does notoriety really animate the image any more than the hundreds of anonymous faces we look at in daguerreotypes of the day? These people, famous and anonymous alike, are ultimately remote from us. And the question of the meaning of their lives slips away from us, like so many grains of sand through our fingers. We may become desperate for an answer, because ultimately their meaning is our meaning. Always these photographs torment us with the ultimate existential question. In Emily Dickinson’s own words:

“I am nobody. Who are you?”

Posted in History of Photography

The fall from innocence

Figure 1 – The first newspaper photograph of future president Richard M. Nixon (second from right), Los Angeles Herald, 1916, public domain.


“No man knows the value of innocence and integrity but he who has lost them.”

William Godwin (1756-1836)

I have entitled today’s blog “The fall from innocence.” The phrase has a kind of religious ring to it, as if to connote The Fallen Angels or Man’s Fall from Grace and the Garden of Eden. Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Watergate Break-in, when several burglars, ultimately linked to the President of the United States, were arrested for breaking-in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. – the President of the United States connected with criminal activities, cover-up, and obstruction of justice. It precipitated a constitutional crisis and, arguably, our democracy proved stronger for it.

For those of us who witnessed the events of the scandal evolve, moment by moment, on our television sets, who read it, day by day, in our newspapers and weekly magazines the very word “Watergate” fills or minds with so many memetic images. I pondered long and hard as to which photograph of the day would be best to illustrate and commemorate the event. I settled in the end with the unfamiliar, but poignant image of Figure 1, which I think truly shows the tragedy of Watergate, because ultimately tragedies are personal. It is a picture taken by a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Herald in 1916, showing a uwoman with three children each contributing a nickel to aid orphans of the First World War – three angelic innocent faces, performing an act of charity and kindness. The child in the middle is then three-year old Richard M. Nixon, who credited it as the first time that his face appeared in the papers.

It would appear many more times. But what is of interest to me is how someone falls from innocence and grace to infamy. It is one of the great mysteries of how time treats us. We may truly wonder about this, and to me that is what the photograph connotes. In the words of American Congregationalist Theologist Lyman Abbott (1835-1922):

Every life is a march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice.”
Posted in History of Photography

When women wore tents

Figure 1 – Napoleon Sarony, portrait of a lady in a crinoline dress, c. 1870.

I can never resist a Napoleon Sarony photograph from when women wore crinolines. I especially like the portraits of everyday people, not some contemporary celebrity. It seems just so absurd. And here in Figure 1, Sarony has made the distinction between the drape overhanging the chair and the lady’s dress almost indistinguishable. She must have loved the image in all its opulence of fabric. I hope that I have restored the image to the way it captured the lady’s eyes, which judging from the photograph were almost certainly a lovely shade of blue.

Fundamentally, crinoline dresses were dangerous. In 1858 The New York Times reported the first crinoline-related death. A young Boston woman was standing by the mantel in her parlor, when she caught fire. Within minutes she was entirely consumed by flames. At the same time there were nineteen such deaths in England over a two-month period. Saddest of all, witnesses were impeded by their own crinolines and could only watch the hapless victims die in agony.

Parody by George Crtuikshank, 1848. Public domain.

Today we can forget about all these terribly things and laugh instead at contemporary cartoons and accounts. Figure 2 is a famous parody by George Cruikshank from 1848. If nothing else, crinolines enabled young ladies to maintain their social distance. And this much to a young man’s dismay. 

 In 1863, Blackwood’s Magazine published a poem entitled , “Crinoliniana,” which ended,

“I long to clasp thee to my heart
     But all my longings are in vain;
I sit and sigh two yards apart,
     And curse the barriers of thy train.
My fondest hopes I must resign,
I can’t get past that Crinoline!”

Posted in History of Photography

Star in a snowy window

Figure 1 – Star in a snowy window. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

Every once in a while, I go through the images that I never processed and have forgotten about. Sometimes there are pleasant surprises. Case in point, today I found this image of a stained glass six pointed star hanging in a snowy window.  It was taken on Valentine’s Day. I remember rejecting it with an “eh”. But today I examined it closely and decided that I really liked the composition, the tilted mullion in the glass and the shadows of branches outside. Notice also the subtle opalescent face in the center circle, like the “Man in the Moon.”The color and lighting certainly point to winter. Who wants to think about winter this time of year – especially about snow.

Some trivia, of course, is in order. Most of the stars we think of are five pointed and they vary the whole spectrum from the Star of Bethlehem to the Devil’s Pentagram. The big exception is the six pointed Star of David. And an interesting point – if you look at the Great Seal of the United States you will find a set of 13 five pointed stars, symbolizing the original 13 states. But in the seal these are arranged in such a way as to create the pattern of a six pointed star.

Canon T2i with EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 100 mm, ISO 800,Aperture Priority AE Mode at f/7.1, with no exposure compensation.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Green on black and white

Figure 1 – Green grass on the pond in late spring, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury, MA (c) DE Wolf 2017.

Something that I find dramatic are photographs where most of the image is black and white which serves emphasize a brilliantly colored subject. Such was my sense of Figure 1. I loved the intensity of the swirling green grass, perfectly complemented by its reflection in the cold black late spring pond. I loved the way that the ripples on the water distorted the trees reflecting off the surface. But most of all I liked that sense of color on black and white, Here it is all natural, a fact emphasized by the little blue patches of sky. This is the peace that we seek in the woods – bright flashes of light highlighted against primordial darkness.

Canon T2i with EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 100 mm, ISO 800, Aperture Priority AE Mode 1/400th sec at f/7.1 with -1 exposure compensation.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings


Figure 1 – Decaying pines on the pond, spring 2017, (c) DE Wolf 2017.

I have hiked by the twin trees of Figure 1 many times. They are a feature on the pond, the kind of dead trees that the great blue herons favor as their nesting grounds. I have found them difficult to photograph, but was happy on this particular day to find a suitable cloud formation as a background that speaks to their magnificent height. They tower above the water, and the birds like to perch in their branches and screech out a song.

I have always had the sense that they were a feature on the pond – something timeless. But in reality that is not the case. The meaning of the pond is not timelessness per-say, but timelessness against a background of endless change. I have watched these two ancient trees metamorphose over the last couple of years, their tops breaking off, their bark peeling, and the way that they yield slowly to the endless attack of insects. Soon they will fall.

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.”

John Muir

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Three photographs of Katherine Cornell

Figure 1 – Arnold Genthe (1869-1942)/LOC agc.7a15817. Miss Katharine Cornell with dog, 1917. From the USLOC, from the Wikipedia and in the public domain.

While researching yesterday’s blog, I started “reading up” on Katherine Cornell (1893-1974), who made Elizabeth in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” her signature role. First of all, I have to say that my mother was a great fan of Katherine Cornell, who was widely acclaimed as the “First Lady of the Theater.” A striking beauty in her day, it is not surprising that she was photographed by some of the very greatest photographers of the first half of the twentieth century.

We can begin with Figure 1, a portrait by Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) take on December 31, 1917.  It is so quintessentially Genthe. A soft focused figure appears as if out of the shadows in a chiaroscuro style. It was the height of photopictorialism, and the photograph speaks to classical roots in nineteenth century portraiture.When I first saw the image I assumed that she was holding Buzzer the Cat. But in fact, she is holding one of her spaniels. She was famous for her love of dogs. And, of course, Miss Barrett’s cocker spaniel, “Flush,” features prominently in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”

The second image is a portrait from 1924 by Edward Steichen (1879-1973). I am afraid that I am going to have to ask you to go to this link to see it. But it is worth the cyber-trip. There are many Steichen portraits of Cornell from this period and this one is such a masterpiece. You can see that it sold at auction at Christie’s for $87,762.  It bears the same style as the Genthe portrait, only it puts Miss Cornell at the center, thus stabilizing the subject and the photograph. The subject has become statuesque, a dancer posing for the photographer. Cornell emerges now, no longer demur, but more vamp, that and her hat are typical of the feminine styles of the 1920’s.

Figure 2 – Carl van Vechten, Katherine Cornell, 1933, from the Wikipedia from the Van Vechten Collection at US Library of Congress and in the public domain.

Finally, we have Figure 2 a portrait of Cornell by portraitist and writer Carl van Vechten (1880-1964) from 1933. The lighting again is very similar, although the background is light, and the flowers are overwhelmingly translucent. Note how the flowers in the foreground brightly contrast and complement the dark wallpaper flowers in the background. They also preserve the “rule of thirds,” Still there is something disturbing here, a fear, and ingeniously the flowers accentuate the foreboding. Something is very, very wrong.

All three artists have chosen to portray Cornell in a similar light. It is the same persona dramatically transformed by the sixteen years that take us from Genthe to Steichen to van Vechten.

“I was nervous from the very beginning, and it got worse as the years went on. I was conscientious and wanted to do more, always, than I was able. I don’t think, when I was playing, that I was ever happy – beginning at 4 o’clock any afternoon.”

Katherine Cornell


Posted in Essays on Photography, History of Photography

How do I love thee

Figure 1 – Robert Browning c 1888, Woodbury print by,Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 – ca.1896) – Bonhams, feom the Wikipedia and in the publlic domain in the United States because of its age.

My last blog really begs the question of photographs of Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861) and Robert Browning (1812-1889). Theirs ranks as one of the great love stories of all time: up there with Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliet, and Abelard and Heloise – although with a much happier ending.Their love story was immortalized by the play “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” made famous by actress Katherine Cornell (1893-1874) as Elizabeth. Elizabeth was one of the most recognized Victorian poets. Indeed, with the death of Wadsworth, she was strongly considered to become Poet Laureate. Tennyson was chosen instead. 

Elizabeth had chronically poor health and in the end likely suffered from tuberculosis. She was introduced to Robert, six years her junior, on May 20, 1845 and what began as an intellectual relationship soon became romantic. Barrett’s father had decreed that he would disown his children if they married. This odd resolve is by some believed to result from his belief that they were disgracefully of mulatto blood, and that the family line should be ended. As a result, their courtship and marriage were carried out clandestinely. They were married secretly and moved to Italy in 1846, where they lived for much of the remainder of her life. Her father was true to his promise and disowned Elizabeth. Most significantly to posterity, Robert Browning insisted that Elizabeth publish her love sonnets, which became entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese.(1850) and it is for these that she is best remembered.

I will admit to two literary pilgrimages. The first was when in college I found my way to the former Barrett home on Wimpole Street. The second was to the Browning home in Florence, The Palazzo Guidi.

Robert Browning was extremely handsome and stately throughout his life as is well illustrated by Figure 1. It is a Woodbury print by Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 – c1896). We see the quintessential Victorian gentleman.

Photographs of Elizabeth Barrett Browning are scarcer and she seems inevitably to bear the pallor of chronic illness. One of the more famous is shown below in Figure 2. It shows Elizabeth in 1860, a year of her death with son Pen. As a touching image of mother and child this conjures up many of the nineteenth century photographs that we have spoken of previously – silent moments captured in time, speaking in a whisper across time. But the point here is that knowledge of the sitter gives the photograph a voluminous voice. We know that women’s voice, we know her mind. She has spoken to us in volumes, and the photograph gives her even greater life. In the photograph we can just make out Elizabeth’s hands, tenderly clasping those of her son. If you follow the link to the The Palazzo Guidi you will find a photograph of a bronze casting of Robert’s and Elizabeth’s clasped hands. The image of Figure !, despite being over 150 years old is full of life. Those are the hands that penned:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese #43, How do I love Thee


Figure 1 – Photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen (Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning), photographer unknown, 1860. From the Wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

Posted in Essays on Photography, History of Photography

Porphyria’s lover

Figure 1 – Porphyria’s Lover, Wig Mannequin, Waltham, MA. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

I took my wife to her hairdresser this weekend and I was a bit stunned by the wig mannequin of Figure 1. She is very reminiscent of a Tim Burton character – utterly vampiric. Most striking is the violet eye shadow, her closed eyes, pale tessellated complexion, and cracked lips. You forget that she is a mannequin and find yourself taken up in the ambiguity of alive or dead. It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I made a poetic association with this pale ghost.

She immediately brought to my mind Robert Browning’s dark poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” I reproduce it in its entirety below, because I believe that it is essential reading for English speakers. Despite its macabre subject matter, or perhaps because of it, it is a milestone in the exploration of psychosis, of the darkest regions of the disturbed and murderous mind. It speaks of love, hate; life, death, and possession most ambiguously, and in those regards, it hearkens to another Browning masterpiece My Last Duchess.

The wonderful mystery of Porphyria’s Lover is that the meaning of the name is obscure. Robert Browning was home-schooled and as such he often made obscure personal associations with classicism. So, in the end, we really don’t know why it is called “Porphyria’s Lover.” Perhaps that is all part of the charm. “And yet God has not said a word!”

Porphyria’s Lover
The rain set early in to-night,
       The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
       And did its worst to vex the lake:
       I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
       She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
       Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
       Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
       And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
       And, last, she sat down by my side
       And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
       And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
       And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
       And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
       Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
       From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
       And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
       Nor could to-night’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
       For love of her, and all in vain:
       So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
       Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
       Made my heart swell, and still it grew
       While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
       Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
       In one long yellow string I wound
       Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
       I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
       I warily oped her lids: again
       Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
       About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
       I propped her head up as before,
       Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
       The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
       That all it scorned at once is fled,
       And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
       Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
       And all night long we have not stirred,
       And yet God has not said a word!
Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings