For over a hundred years the only known image of Emily Dickinson has been a daguerreotype taken of the famously reclusive poet when she was just 16, long before she had penned any of her famous works. Now, a new image has come to light, and it may soon be able to fill in the gaps in Dickinson’s mysterious persona.
The new image, a daguerreotype, depicts two women seated side-by-side. It was found in 1995 by a private collector who purchased it from a Springfield junk dealer who had purchased objects from an estate clear-out. The collector had a feeling the person on the left could be Emily Dickinson and began to try to prove his claim.
To start, he investigated the identity of the right-hand figure. After several years studying Dickinson’s life, he identified the woman as Catherine Scott Turner (later Anthon), a close friend of the Dickinson family. He picked her out by the two distinctive moles visible below either side of her mouth, which matched to other portraits of the woman found at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York, where she was born and lived for many decades.
The verification of Turner’s identity as the woman on the right greatly helps the cause of those trying to prove that the figure on the left is Dickinson, because the two have a well documented close relationship. Furthermore, it helps date the image to roughly 1859. Turner was widowed in 1855 and wore black the rest of her life, which can be seen in the image. Furthermore, she is known to have visited Amherst in 1859, but her friendship with Emily Dickinson cooled by 1862. Finally, daguerreotype technology was gradually giving way to ambrotype technology in the 1850s, so this was a late daguerreotype. This may also help find the identity of the photographer. The collector speculates that the photographer was Springfield, Mass. photographer J.C. Spooner, who advertised as late as 1859 that he was still making daguerreotypes by request, despite ambrotypes having by then become a less expensive, more popular choice of photograph.
In July 2007 the collector came forward to the Emily Dickinson Museum and Amherst College Archives and Special Collections for help in validating his hunch. After making copies of the daguerreotype (now found at both the Museum and the College Archives and Special Collections), the Museum and Archives experts got down to work, closely examining the photograph with a variety of tools, with encouraging results.
First, they did computer work with detailed scans of the original image, which validated that it was an authentic daguerreotype from the right time period.
Next an ophthalmological report, facilitated by historian and member of the board of governors of the Emily Dickinson Museum Polly Longsworth, was conducted by Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center ophthalmologist Dr. Susan Pepin. Pepin, Director of neuro-ophthalmology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, has long been interested in Dickinson’s eye problems, which include a recognizable astigmatism in one eye. She carefully examined the eyes in the new image and compared this feature with Dickinson’s eyes in her 1847 portrait, and after taking precise measurements of distinct characteristics of the eyes from enlarged images of both daguerreotypes (mirror images that show features reversed), she concluded that the two portraits are of the same person. Other facial features Pepin founds identical in both portraits were the position of Dickinson’s right earlobe and the configuration of the area between the nose and upper lip.
Next, Archives and Museum staff members, particularly College Archives and Special Collections Specialist Margaret Dakin, began to study the dresses worn in the image. Though some point out that the dress the supposed Dickinson wears in the image seem out of date for a late 1850’s photographic image, Dickinson often described herself as old-fashioned, stating to friend Abiah Root in a letter in 1854, “I’m so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare” (Johnson letter 166). Furthermore, a search by staff members through the Emily Dickinson Museum’s textile collection led to the discovery of at least one fabric sample in a blue check that is a candidate for the dress Dickinson wears. Furthermore, the Museum has samples of similar lace and ribbons to the ones in the picture, though none are a direct match.
“Its been a slow, steady process,” said Mike Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections. “Professionally, I maintain an objective position in this case and know that the picture may not in fact be of Emily Dickinson. Now, saying that, it totally looks like her. I get two or three letters a year saying ‘I have a photo of Emily Dickinson’ and after seeing them I’m always like ‘no, you don’t,’ which is why we waited so long to release information about his photo. But my instinct [when I see the photo] is ‘wow, that looks like her.’”
The ramifications of the image, if the woman is proven to be Dickinson are large.
“If verified, it gives us more information about Emily Dickinson that we have not had, i.e. what she looked like at age 29 or 30. It invites us to ask ourselves and the literary, cultural community what difference it makes to our knowledge or opinion of Emily Dickinson — that is, it can stimulate debate,” said Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. “The content of the photograph tells a story — who are these two women, what led them to sit for a daguerreotype on a certain day, who did they share this image with, what’s the relationship between them? The photo can open up a new area of inquiry concerning Dickinson’s biography, experiences, influences — or it may confirm hypotheses already formed.”
However, there is still a lot of work to do in order to fully verify Dickinson as the woman on the left. Museum and Archive staff hope to have a textile expert to determine whether the sample found is the same as the fabric in the image. They also hope to further study her physical feature, have definitive identification of the daguerreotypist, find historical circumstances of the occasion recorded in the photo and figure out how the daguerreotype ended up in Springfield.
“There are some holes, mostly that there is not clear evidence of the photo. We don’t have a letter saying ‘remember that time we got our picture taken’,” Kelly said.
Museum and Archive staff hope that, by publicizing the article, they will increase interest in the image and its progressing authentication. They also expect that it may even spark interest in Dickinson, both her life and her poetry.
“There has been only one authenticated photographic image (a daguerreotype) of Emily Dickinson at the age of 16. This iconic daguerreotype of her as a teenager has become fixed in our minds as a kind of timeless portrait of the poet, even though it was made long before she came to think of herself as a poet. There has been no image of her as a mature woman, a working poet, who has had a dozen more years of life experience that has shaped her personality and vocation. Readers have always been curious about the woman behind the poetry — the life behind the poems. An image of an older Dickinson will help to fill in some of the blank spaces in our view of her,” Wald said.