Private pictures and public knowledge

A week or three ago I blogged about the great selfie crisis. Since then I’ve come across an interesting little problem.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that one of my interests is that chaotic period of Russian history between the February revolution and the end of the civil war in 1923.

I was putting together a little presentation about the roles of various fellow travellers and was looking for a photograph of Louise Bryant – who was the wife of John Reed – he of Ten days that shook the world – and a journalist and writer in her own right, and continued to report on the revolution and civil war after Reed’s death.

In the course of my searching I came across a picture of Louise Bryant sunbathing naked on Provincetown beach in 1916.

Provincetown is at the tip of Cape Cod and in the early years of the twentieth century was a summer time artists colony. Louise Bryant had a play performed there, and in the summer of 1916 had an affair with Eugene O’Neill while holidaying there with John Reed.

Given that Louise was a free spirit it’s hardly surprising that she did such a thing as sunbathe naked, and the existence of such a photograph confirms things that we might well suspect about goings on within the artistic community in Provincetown a century ago.

The picture itself is not a particularly high quality image, slightly grainy, suggesting it was taken on a fairly basic camera – it’s also almost certainly posed, which is not surprising given the slow film (and forgiving) emulsions in use at the time, especially for amateur roll films, suggesting that Louise both knew her photographer and knew she was being photographed.

The (probable) use of roll film is also interesting – at the time most serious photographers used large format cameras to get the sharp image quality they wanted – suggested that the picture was most definitely taken by a friend, but who ?

Even in liberal Provncetown, it’s probably not the sort of thing that you get processed at the corner drugstore suggesting that Louise had an accomplice both in the taking, and the processing of the film.

We know from Louise and John Bryant’s correspondence it was taken in the early summer of 1916 just before her affair with Eugene O’Neill turned serious.

Intended as a private picture, sent to John Reed while he was working on a journalistic project in Chicago, the picture surfaced among John Reed’s papers after his death.

We know he received it, as in his letters back to Louise he makes a number of references to both the photograph and the Provincetown dunes.

This is not the first time and certainly not the last time that someone has sent a nude photograph of themselves to a lover, but it does raise a number of interesting questions about when the private becomes public.

Given that the picture is almost a century old, and that Louise Bryant died in 1936, and her daughter, who did not have any children is also now dead, it probably doesn’t matter, but it does raise the question as to at what point private photographs can freely be considered to be in the public domain …

Written with StackEdit.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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