Today we take it for granted that we have photographs of pretty much everyone: famous or not, smartphone-owning or not, Instagram-using or not. It’s hard to imagine anyone becoming famous without an attendant cache of images to identify them.
But that wasn’t always the case, and to illustrate just how much our relationship to photographs has changed, think about Emily Dickinson: she’s one of America’s best-known poets, and yet only one authenticated image of her exists. What’s more, it’s a daguerreotype taken in 1847, when she was 16. That would be like going down in literary history with only your MySpace photo to represent you.
This is why it’s exciting (for us nerds, anyway) that the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections announced this week that a newly rediscovery daguerreotype probably shows Dickinson at age 30. The photograph, likely taken around 1859, depicts Dickinson sitting alongside her friend Kate Scott Turner. Scholars aren’t 100% certain yet that the woman on the left is indeed the famed poet, but after subjecting the image to rigorous analysis, they’re pretty confident.
Polly Longsworth, historian and member of the board of governors of the Emily Dickinson Museum, facilitated a report conducted by Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center ophthalmologist Dr. Susan Pepin, who carefully examined the eyes in the new image and compared this feature with Dickinson’s eyes in her 1847 portrait. … After taking precise measurements of distinct characteristics of the eyes from enlarged images of both daguerreotypes (mirror images that show features reversed), she believes that the two portraits are of the same person.
And Michael Kelly, head of the archives and special collections, said, “In Photoshop, it’s a crazy-perfect fit” between the two portraits.
So how does the new image shape our conception of the legendarily reclusive poet? Well, as expected, she looks older and more mature. More confident, too — the latter portrait shows a woman far more comfortable in her own skin, which makes sense, given the age difference. But as the use of an opthalmology exam suggests, the unifying thread between the two is her eyes. In both pictures, Dickinson’s gaze is steady and piercing; she projects tremendous energy outwards, to the point where it’s hard to feel like you can really glean much about her. It’s funny — we may have a new and better portrait now, but the woman behind the poetry remains at least a little bit elusive.
Visitors to the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections (Amherst College, Robert Frost Library, 61 Quadrangle Drive, Amherst, MA) may view a copy of the new daguerreotype anytime upon request, and the Emily Dickinson Museum (280 Main Street, Amherst, MA) has plans to display a copy sometime after Labor Day.