Spotting a smile – thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s newly discovered daguerrotype

When I think of Emily Dickinson, this image comes to mind and it is this one of her as a young woman in the mid 1840’s with her top lip weighing onto the bottom and those dark widely spaced pools of eyes, slightly freckled and a little gangly and a whole lot of mysterious. Her hands distractedly hold a flower, but her eyes fix the camera and don’t let go.

Dickinson described herself as:

    I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?

So it was with great delight I read of another discovery, another, new Emily Dickinson daguerrotype of 1859 and it is a different Emily I see.

This Emily is startlingly different and equally as wonderful. Her gaze is still unwavering and the lips just the same, except for the curious little smile that she shared as she sits next to her friend, Susan. To sit for a daguerrotype require a long exposure, special head-rests and were usually taken out in the sunshine for optimal light. Daguerrotypes are no quick snap taken with a telephone and beamed around the world, oh no. The reason why subjects rarely smile in early photographs is that a smile would be too fleeting and ruin the exposure and the picture. A pose had to be sustained.

So when I look closely that is what I see in Emily Dickinson’s face, a smile she can’t suppress, as a leopard cannot reverse its spots:

Civilization — spurns — the Leopard!
Was the Leopard — bold?
Deserts — never rebuked her Satin —
Ethiop — her Gold —
Tawny — her Customs —
She was Conscious —
Spotted — her Dun Gown —
This was the Leopard’s nature — Signor —
Need — a keeper — frown?

Pity — the Pard — that left her Asia —
Memories — of Palm —
Cannot be stifled — with Narcotic —
Nor suppressed — with Balm —



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2 responses to “Spotting a smile – thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s newly discovered daguerrotype

  1. Very nice. I didn’t know the exposure was so long. Changes my sense of the models: Dickinson’s gaze (and smirk), held for that long.

  2. Not sure exactly how long exposures were, but I would take a guess at 20 or so seconds. When the average manual camera takes an average shot it is 125th of a second ( the fastest shot being 1000th of second, the longest 4 seconds) it is mind boggling…

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