In my previous post I raised the question, “why is it that commercial portraiture, which in the 19th century and into the 20th made up an overwhelming majority of all photographs taken, has received comparatively so little attention in the more established histories of photography?” Maybe the “What if God Was One of Us” video, with its weirdly mixed “message,” does not go far enough to answer this question, except to suggest, subliminally or subconsciously, that commercial portraiture is a game of masks, or fools, and an outdated one at that, perhaps even only appealing today to ethnic minorities and punk heads.
One simple answer is that in most portraits encountered in old albums or today in picture-sharing facilities, there is generally nothing to like or to learn—except perhaps numbers, formats, archival procedures—unless the viewer is related to the subject and in a position to reconstruct stories involving the image. Portraits are usually private. Their merits—the knowledge and care that pertain to them, the aspirations of the sitters through their representations—are private, and often ephemeral; memories attached to them fade fast. In portraits, then, there is nothing to learn or to like, unless some significant context or discourse can be recovered or imagined about them. It takes the compassionate, lyrical eye of a Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida to approach “the impossible science of the unique being” by uncovering a punctum in a portrait (and those examples where Barthes reads poignant details beneath conventional appearances, such as a James Van der Zee portrait of an African American family, are mostly artist portraits). Or it takes the assiduous care of a collector to turn private relics into semi-public documents testifying to the neglected art of commercial photography, or sometimes, with contextual luck, to vanished life stories. This was one goal of the exhibition I curated in 2013, a selection of portraits from the Wm. B. Becker collection, featuring Becker’s micro-investigations of several mid-19th century Daguerreian portraits of somewhat known figures (Daguerre’s American Legacy). But for each portrait that can be “recovered,” millions remain locked away in silence. The main exception is the celebrity portrait; it is really no exception, however, because portraits of celebrities are surrounded—indeed, preceded—by overabundant discourse.
My example is the celebrated tintype of Billy the Kid (William Henry McCarty by birth), shown here in the “corrected” version available through Wikipedia’s page and visible in “uncorrected,” i.e. laterally reversed and uncleaned, versions elsewhere:
This photograph was probably taken in 1879 or 1880, not long before the Lincoln County War hero was gunned down by Pat Garrett. It is generally regarded as his only authenticated portrait, because it was first reproduced, as an engraving, in Pat Garrett’s own An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published in 1882. It was later multiplied, transformed, embellished (and, often, degraded) in countless publications. Perhaps the best account of the Kid’s iconography—mostly derived from this one tintype—, and certainly the best online presentation I have found, is in an article by Robert G. McCubbin, who calls the Billy the Kid tintype “one of the most famous and most valuable photographs in history” (look at the picture gallery appended).
The fame of this tintype picked up again in 2011 when it was sold at auction at a staggering 2.3 million dollars, hitting the international press and becoming, according to Wikipedia, the seventh most expensive photograph ever sold (and a real oddity in Wikipedia’s top-20 list, which is filled with great (and mostly American) artist photographers from Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman to Alfred Stieglitz). The metal picture had been kept by descendants of Dan Dedrick, one of the outlaw’s friends to whom the tintype (one of several copies) was originally given. After being shown for some time in the 1990s at the Lincoln County Heritage Trust Museum, and having somewhat “disappeared,” it was brought to auction at a Western show, announced as a “Holy Grail” (see the picture gallery attached, including an analysis of objects visible in the image). Estimated at about $400,000, it was bought, at almost six times that value, by William Koch III, entrepreneur, one-time winner of the America’s Cup, millionaire, and art collector.
Prior to the sale this tintype had long been a topic of debates concerning, for example, the left/right reversal of the image, likely in a tintype (the Colt holster on Billy’s left hip in the image leading to the durable belief that he was left-handed), or the distortion of his jaw apparent in the image, possibly caused by glare from the reflector visible at left in the tintype and picked up or even strengthened in many engravings and pulp illustrations between 1881 and the 1950s. The sale generated even more publicity. It may have led to the “discovery” of a second “authentic” image of Billy the Kid, where he allegedly appears in company with Dan Dedrick, a conjecture that led interested parties to resort to the services of a former police forensic detective. Again, this discovery made international news. This succession of high-profile operations naturally revived former speculations about other photographs of the Kid, which are found aplenty on various blogs. The Billy the Kid tintype definitely has not only a context but a history—at least in the form of a sizeable amount of “historical” literature that uses the image either as illustration or as subject for forensic and/or photographic investigation.
The literature here is evidence of a strong American trend of exploring, if not dissecting, photographs, especially portraits of celebrities—a trend that arguably began with Frederick Meserve’s The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln (1910) and continues unabated (for Lincoln, see for instance George Sullivan’s Picturing Lincoln ). Such investigations sometimes lead to discoveries, contradicting the lazy notion that there is nothing to learn or to like in an old portrait: Billy the Kid wore a hand-knit wool cardigan under his jacket, like the mommy’s boy he once was; his particular models of the Winchester rifle and the Colt revolver seem to “make sense,” because they used the same cartridges…
Whether involving famous portraits or famous images of unknown figures (such as Richard Drew’s Falling Man of 9/11, as explored by Tom Junod), such investigations are interesting culturally, in that they illustrate a double faith, democratic and empirical: in the power of individuals to “make history,” or at least to impersonate it, and in the power of photographs to represent such actions. Robert Taft, in his 1938 Photography and the American Scene, already attributed “historic value” to Mathew Brady’s portraits of Lincoln, though he did not mention the Kid tintype. At the same time, these meticulous investigations also imply a deep skepticism towards established icons, or the discourse surrounding them, and ultimately the very faith in images that they continue to promote: a dialectics of faith and skepticism that has characterized American approaches to pictures (and signs more generally) from Benjamin Franklin to Sherrie Levine and Errol Morris.
Above all, such investigations refer to the great cult of (heroic) images that American culture has continually nurtured over the past 250 years. After the 2011 sale, Bob McCubbin asked in another piece on the Billy the kid tintype, “why is this picture so important and valuable?” Here is his answer, which almost sounds like a sales pitch:
- "It is one of the most widely recognized photographs of all time.
- It is the ONLY authentic photograph of one of America’s most famous historical figures.
- There is ONLY ONE known original... the one being offered here at auction.
- Billy the Kid continues to capture the imagination of people worldwide 130 years after his death, and I am sure will continue to do so. His only photograph has become an icon of the Old West. "
Individually, these reasons don’t hold. No one in Paris or Tokyo, or even in New York, would consider this photograph “one the most widely recognized of all time.” It is not mentioned in any of the standard histories of photography, nor in Martha Sandweiss’s Print The Legend: Photography and the American West, for which it would have made a fitting example. Billy the Kid may be considered by many to be one of America’s most famous historical figures. But it is debatable how much he really “continues to capture the imagination of people worldwide,” anymore than, say, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, James Dean or Michael Jackson.
It does seem, however, that McCubbin hits the mark when one adds up his “reasons.” This metal plate is the only known original (among four presumed copies) of the only authenticated photograph (among hundreds of legendary images and millions of replicas) of a famous historical figure. And, I might add, of a famous outlaw, who had to make himself scarce to escape those who saw his rogue face on “Wanted” posters, so that the existence of an authentic photograph of him is a kind of historical miracle, or rather, a spectacular reminder of a popular gangster hero’s ability to flaunt the law and posture for the photographer as hewanted to be remembered.
It is, then, a consummate American icon, whose value derives from the million copies, derivations, stories, and sales that have been generated from it, in addition to its obvious ideological worth in a Wild-West nostalgic libertarian mindset, as a relic of a benevolent justicer, an anti-establishment, anti-government, and perhaps anti-modern lonesome cowboy.
There is not much, in fact, that we can (still) learn from the Billy the Kid tintype (though we would like to know its maker and the circumstances under which it was made). But the possibilities for more stories (and sales) growing out of it still are endless. That makes it a rather typical icon, but an unusual portrait, comparable perhaps to the Che Guevara portrait by Alberto Korda, though the targeted audiences of these two popular icons may be different. Relatively few portraits, indeed, have joined the ranks of certified American icons, aside from those of the Founding Fathers; but, like this one, even those portraits that have become pop icons still do not really “count” for our traditional, art-historically oriented histories of photography, any more than the billions of obscure individual images which we all keep to ourselves.