An Arcadian Photographer in Manhattan

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DRAFT Review of Donald Rosenthal’s An Arcadian Photographer in Manhattan: Edward Mark Slocum

Callum James Books (2012) 80 pp.

by William A. Percy


This is the first study of photographs by Edward Mark Slocum (1882-1945). Living in Manhattan in the 1920s, Slocum, a chemist by profession, took many photographs of nude young men and boys, circulating them under a variety of pseudonyms.

A multifaceted genius, Slocum has previously been studied as the editor of homosexual poetry, Men and Boys: An Anthology (1924). Little was known about Slocum’s life when the book was reprinted in 1978 by Coltsfoot Press with a short note by Timothy d’Arch Smith and an excellent introductory essay by Donald Mader, who, by astute detective work, identified Slocum as the compiler of the anonymous anthology.

While a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, Slocum took many photographs. Evidence suggests that he authored an anonymous book which included some of his photographs and poems, Lads O’ the Sun: Memories, that apparently was published in New York in 1928 in a very limited edition. A few of the poems in that book nearly duplicate poems published earlier in Men and Boys, ascribed to “Edmund Edwinstone.”

Slocum usually placed his models in outdoor settings in and around New York City, but far removed from modern life, continuing the tradition of Arcadian nudes of youths established in the 1890s by the German photographers Wilhelm von Gloeden and his less famous cousin Guglielmo Plüschow, who worked in Naples and Rome. Slocum visited Gloeden, the most famous resident of Taormina, Sicily, who made that beautiful resort a mecca for homosexuals.

This book of Rosenthal’s is subtle, sympathetic, and beautifully written. He includes unpublished letters from Gloeden to Slocum, as well as Slocum’s correspondence with other photographers and friends. Lads O’ the Sun was handmade, with 35 photographs and accompanying poems. Rosenthal discusses the three known copies of the book, all differing from each other and containing a total of 50 images, many in unique prints. He illustrates 14 of these, together with related works by Slocum and other photographers, concentrating on the photographs rather than the poems, which often have no apparent relation to the accompanying images.

To track Slocum’s movements, Rosenthal cites numerous public records (shipping manifests, census data), information unavailable to Mader at the time he wrote his introduction. He presents convincing evidence that Slocum’s took the photographs in Lads O’ the Sun. Rosenthal also discusses Slocum’s private photographic albums, now mostly dispersed. One of these, which Slocum called Filii Amoris, had 58 prints until it was dismantled in 1996. These pictures, also probably from the 1920s, are considerably more erotic than Slocum’s “published” photographs. Many are still on the art market, where a few have recently passed through auction sales. (For example, http://www.liveactioneers.com under Sold, Edwinstone.)

A man of wide interests, Slocum in his later years seem to have stopped photographing to write a study of Shakespeare’s homosexual associates and rivals. Professor David P. Mackay of the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College describes a typescript of these essays, in two parts (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC) as “the first full scale study of homoeroticism in the early modern theater.” Rosenthal convinces that Slocum was a first class scholar without discussing at length his original work on Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Slocum is a little-known photographer whose works remain difficult to find. Nevertheless, his photographs bring a more modern, American sensibility to the Arcadian genre of male nudes, best exemplified by the works of his older friend Gloeden, who used exclusively Sicilian models. In contrast, Slocum often paired a Nordic youth with a Mediterranean one. This book makes available for the first time a representative selection of Slocum’s well-made, often optimistic images of youth, together with some works by some European artists working in the same tradition who influenced him.

Widely travelled as well as broadly educated, with an A.B. from Yale, more than a year at Harvard Law School and enrollment at Princeton Graduate School, Rosenthal recently retired after a long and distinguished career as a curator. He worked at museums beginning at the Metropolitan Museum in New York while studying for his Ph.D. at Columbia, with stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, University of Rochester, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and St. Anselm College.

Rosenthal began a highly specialized career after retirement with limited edition books featuring homoerotic photographs, a subject about which he’d never previously published. He began with the photographs of Baron Corvo, about whom there is quite a cult, in 250 copies (The Photographs of Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, 1860-1913, 2008, Asphodel). He plans to publish another limited edition of Norman Douglas, whose photographs are difficult to distinguish from those of others, using his or their own Kodaks. The book on Corvo sold out and is now difficult and expensive to procure, so you’d better try to buy this one before all 75 of its exemplars are gone.

Rosenthal avoids the vexed question whether the Uranians, called by the pioneer d’Arch Smith, and the current master of that field, the expatriate American Michael Matthew Kaylor, “English,” by which they really mean British or Irish, had any real serious relations with the Americans. In his original introduction to Men and Boys, Donald Mader dubbed the Americans Calamites, but called them Uranians in a second introduction that only appeared on my website because, on further study, he concluded they were intimately connected with their British peers.

I think that Slocum’s frequent visits to England that Rosenthal has uncovered, his correspondence and trafficking with British Uranians, shows that America influenced the British poets more than is allowed by d’Arch Smith or his successor Kaylor. But Rosenthal has avoided the whole question of reciprocal influence of the two trans-Atlantic cohorts of poets of boy love, though he does emphasize the importance their photographs.

As Rosenthal proved, Slocum travelled frequently to Great Britain, where he knew several of the British Uranians, so brilliantly excerpted and analyzed in the two volumes of Kaylor’s Lad’s Love. The volumes by Slocum that Kinsey acquired may been owned by the Dutch branch of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenscaft, perhaps because Slocum had spent several years in the Dutch East Indies, where he may have known a Dutch poet of boy love, as Mader speculates. Another American, James Latimer McLane Jr., also travelled frequently to Great Britain and knew some of the British, as Stephen Wayne Foster, the leading expert on American boy love poets, has uncovered; so easy had trans-Atlantic communication and travel become by the 20th century.

Another American poet well known to the British was my own uncle Will, who was anthologized in Slocum’s Men and Boys under “A. W. Percy,” his poem also slightly altered. So, these three Americans in particular were known to British Uranians. Donald Mader has told me that Will inscribed a copy of Enzio’s Kingdom (1924) to Norman Douglas that has recently come on the market for $900. Douglas was, of course, Will's main British contact. But Douglas, an expatriate Scot, met almost every British traveler who was interested in man-boy love who ever visited Italy. Will wrote a very campy introduction Douglas’s Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology (1927).

All of this refutes the opinion of d’Arch Smith, which has been even more emphasized by Kaylor, that the British Uranians were unconnected to and uninfluenced by the Americans. Another criticism of Kaylor’s book was that it over-emphasized the aristocratic connections of the British Uranians. (Callum James, "Lad's Love - Troubled Souls and their Chaste Longing For the Beautiful, Untouchable," Gay News [Amsterdam], no. 246, February 2012.) But Rosenthal deliberately avoids this quarrel about how much influence there was between the Americans and the British; in regard to Slocum's photography the influence was one-way, since all the British boy-photographers he knew belonged to an older generation. Rosenthal's book is an excellent introduction to Edward Mark Slocum's fascinating work as a photographer.

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