Holland Day (American, 1864-1933), Ebony and Ivory, 1898. Photogravure, 22 x 18 in. Gift of D. Frederick Baker from the Baker/Pisano Collection, 2012.1.24
The secret of style is also in what its surface can set off. Day’s composition may be based in the contrasts of black and white, seated and standing, and miniaturized and filling the frame. But, with its subdued lighting that barely illuminates the dark skin hardly distinguishable from its dark surround, the photograph also asks us to see in the dark. Here, in the tiny confines of this intimate photographic space, we are confronted with the props and bodily stand-ins of an encounter between myths of whitened classicism and blackened exoticism. At the same time, the male bodily figures that intimately touch here are eroticized through a play of not just surface differences but also muscled resemblances. So bold is its staging of colonial desire that it might seem to hold up the tools of its own disassembly. Yet, are we really out of this scene once we mark the power terms of the encounter it stages? While we could try to displace whatever complex of feelings arise for us, the photograph holds us queerly close to the live elements of charged and volatile interaction and fantasy.