Skip to main content

Photographs and Photographers

"No man has been photographed more than I have," Whitman said late in his life (With Walt Whitman 2:45), and he was in fact the most photographed writer of the nineteenth century. There are over 130 extant photographic portraits, far more than of any other author who died before 1900 (by which time portable cameras and roll film had moved photography out of the hands of artisan-photographers and into the hands of everyone who could afford inexpensive cameras). The earliest photos of Whitman were taken in the 1840s (soon after the first daguerreotypes were made in the United States), and his last photos were taken the year of his death. While Whitman often had his portrait painted, he always preferred his photographic portraits, and, toward the end of his life, he wanted to publish a portfolio of the most representative pictures. While this project was never completed, his various editions of Leaves of Grass serve as a kind of cumulative gallery, beginning with his use of the famous 1854 daguerreotype (with Whitman in an open shirt, one arm akimbo, a hand in his pocket, his hat cocked on his head, his eyes fixing the viewer), an engraving of which he used as the frontispiece for his first edition of Leaves. As Leaves went through its various editions, Whitman experimented with the portraits he used in his book; in the 1889 issue of Leaves, he included five photographic portraits (or engravings of photographs) and created a kind of visual progression of his life, as well as a kind of exhibit of the evolution of nineteenth-century techniques of photographic reproduction, from wood-engraving to half-tone reproduction.

For Whitman, photography was one of the great examples of how nineteenth-century technological advancement provided a concomitant spiritual advancement. Just as the railroad and telegraph had shortened time and shrunk space, making the world a smaller place, so had the photograph frozen time and space by holding a moment and a place permanently in view: it transformed the fleeting into the permanent. Whitman was of the first generation of humans who, by the end of their lives, could look back on a sequence of accurate visual traces of their entire life, could track their aging, and could view accurate images of their dead friends and relatives. These "miraculous mirrors," as photographs were often called in the nineteenth century, provided the tools for a whole new conception of identity and a new relationship with one's own past. Stumbling on photos of himself that he had forgotten about, Whitman once spoke humorously of the kind of identity crisis photography had initiated: "I meet new Walt Whitmans every day," he said; "I don't know which Walt Whitman I am" (With Walt Whitman 1:108). Whitman's tone turned serious, though, as he considered the implications of a lifetime of photographs, each portraying a different phase of his life: "It is hard to extract a man's real self . . . from such historic débris" (With Walt Whitman 1:108). Unlike painted portraits, which attempted to render a full identity in a single image, photographic portraits were records of precise moments, each one "useful in totaling a man but not a total in itself" (With Walt Whitman 3:72), as Whitman formulated it. He wondered whether all the photos of himself finally suggested that life was "evolutional or episodical" (With Walt Whitman 4:425), a unified sweep of a single identity or a fragmented series of disjointed and even contradictory identities. Photographs, then, helped Whitman struggle with one of the most essential questions that his poetry dealt with: how a self is defined as it journeys through time and space.

His photographs of himself suggested a kind of cluttered identity, and that seemed to be in the very nature of the photographic enterprise. When photographs first became widely available in the 1840s and 1850s, observers were often struck by the cluttered representation of the world they rendered. In the early days of photography, one thing that distinguished photographic representations of reality from painted representations was that photography did not edit its subject; it did not remove unnecessary or unaesthetic details; it in fact ignored nothing that appeared in the photographic field of vision. The clutter that bothered many viewers of photographs excited Whitman. He noted that the "advantage" of photography is that "it lets nature have its way" (With Walt Whitman 4:124–125). Whitman would try in his own poetry to do the same thing. Through the development of techniques like the poetic catalogue, Whitman attempted to create a poetic field just as cluttered as a photograph; he would try to maintain an open attentiveness to the things of the world so that he could absorb in his poem anything that the sun illuminated, just as photos did.

"I find I often like the photographs better than the oils," Whitman said; "they are perhaps mechanical, but they are honest" (With Walt Whitman 1:131). That same honesty was the quality he sought in his poetry, where he attempted to open his lines to the marginalized subjects and people who had been excluded from the poetry of the past. The poet who in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" defined himself as "but a trail of drift and debris" learned from photography how the cluttered and neglected objects of the world were part of its unity. He learned that union, wholeness, was achieved only by including all the extraneous detail that composed that wholeness; unity could not be represented by leaving things out, by ignoring the unpleasant or evil or apparently insignificant. Photography was literally "light writing," and for Whitman the sun was the great democrat, shining on things great and small, illuminating everything that composed the world. So when Whitman wrote "Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you" ("To a Common Prostitute"), he presented himself as the poet who was every bit as impressionable and absorptive as a photographic plate. "In these Leaves," Whitman wrote, "everything is literally photographed. Nothing is poetized, no divergence, not a step, not an inch, nothing for beauty's sake, no euphemism, no rhyme" (Complete Writings 6:21).

Photography also extended the human field of vision, allowing people actually to see places they had never been, observe persons they had never encountered, and witness events they had not experienced. While Whitman earned his knowledge of Civil War strife through his service in hospitals, he had no actual battlefield experience, and he gathered his visual impressions of those battlefields largely through the widely distributed photographs of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the other photographers who followed the troops. Photographic technology at the time lent itself more to capturing the preparations and aftereffects of battles (corpses on a battlefield) than the actual fighting itself, and Whitman's poetry similarly focused on battlefields before and after the battles; he also bathed his war poems in moonlight, reminiscent of the dark black-and-white surfaces of Civil War photos. In the same way, much of his imagery of the far West derives from the photos that Gardner took for the Union Pacific as the railroad built its way across the prairies. Part of the easy absorptive quality of Whitman's poetry—his claims of having been everywhere and his catalogues of faraway places presented with the authority of someone who had tramped the ground—are the result of a life lived during the heady early days of photography, when it seemed that everyone's eyes were being extended around the world, when it became possible to travel by opening a photograph album.

Whitman knew and admired many of the best of the first generation of photographers. These early photographers were a colorful group of skilled artisans, the kind of independent businessmen—part scientist, part artist, and part salesman—that Whitman admired. As a young reporter in New York, he frequented the daguerreotype galleries and published articles about his enchantment at seeing on the walls the "great legion of human faces" (Gathering 2:116) whose eyes followed him as he wandered among the portraits. One of his favorite galleries was John Plumbe's, whose Broadway studio was unsurpassed in its collection of daguerreotypes of the famous; Whitman met Plumbe in 1846, and one of the first daguerreotypes of Whitman may well have been taken at that time. Gabriel Harrison, who took the well-known daguerreotype that Whitman used for his 1855 Leaves frontispiece, was a writer, actor, painter, and stage manager, as well as an award-winning photographer, and he remained for Whitman one of the true artisan-heroes of the era. Whitman admired Mathew Brady and claimed to have had many conversations with him, but the photographer he most admired was Gardner, who began as Brady's assistant, but who during the Civil War set up his own studio. Whitman thought Gardner's portraits of him were the best, and Gardner in return was a great admirer of Leaves. Whitman called Gardner a "real artist," a photographer who "saw farther than his camera—saw more" (With Walt Whitman 3:346).

After the Civil War, Whitman was photographed by some of the most successful commercial photographers in America—Jeremiah Gurney, George G. Rockwood, Napoleon Sarony, and Frederick Gutekunst. By successfully marketing photographs of actors, writers, adventurers, and politicians, these men were in large part responsible for the creation of the modern idea of "celebrity." The widespread distribution of photographic images of people with well-known names made them instantly recognizable across the country, and Whitman was one of the people whose image was in demand. During the last decade of his life, he collected royalties on sales of his photographs and had a taste of celebrity: "my head gets about: is easily recognized" (With Walt Whitman 3:532). At the end of his life, he was photographed and painted by the then controversial artist Thomas Eakins; the photographs made by Eakins and his assistants are some of the most effective portraits we have of the poet, portraying him as a wise old prophet.

Almost all of Whitman's photographic portraits are of him alone; he was seldom photographed with others, and never with any members of his family or any of his adult friends. On three occasions, he allowed himself to be photographed with the children of friends; the resultant images seem symbolic representations of the American bard preparing the generation of poets to come. On four occasions, he was photographed with young male friends—Peter Doyle in the 1860s, Harry Stafford in the 1870s, Bill Duckett in the 1880s, and Warren Fritzinger in the 1890s. These images are some of the most intimate portraits of the poet; unpublished during his lifetime, they record his personal Calamus relationships. But the majority of his photographs record the carefully controlled evolution of his poetic identity, from the young New York reporter/flâneur to the working class rough to the careworn Civil War nurse to the Good Gray Poet and finally to the ancient sage of democracy.


Clarke, Graham. Walt Whitman: The Poem as Private History. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imagination and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Kennerley, 1914; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.

Whitman, Walt. The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman. Ed. Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel. 10 vols. New York: Putnam, 1902.

____. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

Back to top