Picturing Cather: A Portrait in American Image & Celebrity Culture
The twentieth-century phenomenon of the “icon” celebrity (from Albert Einstein to Marilyn Monroe to Madonna) has a fundamental relationship to the photographic image. As Catharine R. Stimpson contends in her foreword to Brenda Silver’s recent Virginia Woolf Icon, the twentieth-century icon “is unthinkable without the presence of the camera.” Photography, Stimpson explains, “accelerates and reaffirms the process of iconization and celebrity making” through modern modes of mass production (xii). With icons such as Monroe and Madonna, we can easily imagine a corresponding image of each, immortalized through the reproduction of those images over and over again. Monroe standing above the subway grate, for example, or Madonna in her cone-shaped bustier in the early 1990s have become infamous portraits of these women, standing as both a visual shorthand for their personality in particular and the cultural era each represents. (Ever been to a fake 1950s diner without seeing the Monroe photograph?)
Cather’s interest in her image is documented by her legacy of portraits both in photographic form and through her selection of artists Leon Bakst and Nikolai Fechin to paint her portraits. While most of us encounter Cather’s image on literary postcards, on book jackets, and as part of biographical and critical studies, these images are necessarily pulled away from their original contexts. The need to build that original context back into Cather’s visual legacy becomes critical as we investigate Cather’s construction of her public personae, giving us insight into how she managed her career and negotiated the ever-increasingly celebrity-driven literary marketplace. In this
paper I will explore the relationship between Cather and her image by looking closely at selected photographs of Cather throughout her life, culminating with Edward Steichen’s 1927 portrait of Cather in Vanity Fair. This essay will also argue that Cather’s life-long interest in portrait and amateur photography provided her the tools she needed to negotiate her image in the marketplace to build her literary celebrity. Further, I will tie together the historical forces that brought about celebrity culture and explore how Vanity Fair and Edward Steichen’s involvement in her portrait positioned Cather as a full-fledged celebrity of her time. But first, I will discuss the critical role photography played in the construction of the modern celebrity figure in nineteenth century American culture.
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The Iconic Cather Much like Whitman, Twain, and Charlie Chaplin, the building blocks of the American iconic figure seem steeped in a tradition of visual repetition through dress, what Sarah Burns calls “key markers of the public self” (223). While Cather never developed a strict costume as Twain’s post 1906 white suit ensemble, Cather developed and maintained a Cather and the Snapshot While Cather’s portrait studio photographs provide us with formal images of Cather, the growth of personal amateur photography allowed for another side of Cather to emerge in private photographs, meant for friends, family, and Cather herself. The large collection of known snapshot pictures feature Cather relaxed settings, either on vacation site, or posed with family The Image Maker Perhaps one of the most key aspects of the magazine’s popularity stemmed from its use of photography within its pages. Crowninshield’s belief that fine fashion photography could be elevated to an art form had helped Vogue become one of the most popular fashion magazines of the time, and he had similar revolutionary plans for photography Photography and the Cathers While Brady photographed the rich and famous, photography also began to cater to lower and middle-class Americans. The rapid innovation of photography combined with its inherent ability to produce an image quickly and relatively inexpensively meant that “the camera democratized the image” since “large numbers of people could afford pictures of themselves” (Camera 22). Leo A Pioneer of American Writing Willa Cather A Pioneer of American Writing Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, but moved to Nebraska where the population was diverse. She attended school and also was educated at home. She planned on becoming a doctor early in life. She accompanied a local doctor on his house calls and assisted in many of the
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