Reading a Photograph: Notes on a Simple Portrait with Multiple Meanings

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It has often been noted that photography is as much a literary art as it is visual. This is because of the photograph’s ability to stand in for any number of ideas, coming to represent things not a part of the original image itself. Take this carte de visite of a young boy, for example. The picture itself is a studio portrait of boy holding a violin, printed on the back with the greeting, “yours truly, James Speaight.”  In order to tell a story about this photograph, one must put it in a specific context. For example, a textile curator or fashion historian may note the details of his clothing, using this photograph to illustrate the construction and weave of the material or the period style of Victorian children’s clothing. Other historians may find it a useful example to explain historical differences in childrearing, such as the lack of differentiation between boys and girls in the early stages of childhood. This photograph tells volumes without ever referring directly to James Speaight, the subject of the image.

So what about James Speaight, then? It turns out that he was born in London in 1866, and was a child prodigy, becoming a well-known violinist by the age of four. This carte de visite was probably a souvenir available at his performances. Comstock journalist Alf Doten saw Speaight perform in Virginia City in 1872, most likely picking up the card as a memento. This performance is of historical significance because it reveals what a cosmopolitan and urban place Virginia City was during this time, something that historians such as Ron James have frequently commented on in an attempt to broaden the understanding of Virginia City beyond its reputation as a wild West mining camp. Using this photograph to prove this adds to its historical significance, the evidence coming not from the image itself but in its circulation as part of a traveling show.

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As photographs move through time, they assume different meanings, coming to symbolize events not captured within the lens of the camera. For example, photographs of the Twin Towers in New York City now forever evoke September 11th, despite having stood for years as proud symbols of the city’s skyline. Similarly, this was once just a portrait of a famous child purchased as a souvenir. However, the story doesn’t end there.  A couple of years later, young James died a sudden and shocking death. Upon hearing of this, clearly shaken and struggling for words, Doten wrote on the back of the card:

Americus. Master James Speaight. Born in London, October 7, 1867. Piper’s Opera House, Virginia City, Nevada, playing with a vocal and instrumental company, April 17, 1872. Most wonderful violinist I ever saw or heard of. So young. One of the devil’s vicissitables [vicissitudes]. 4 1/2 years old.

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Doten also glued an article about the child’s death onto the card, further cementing this context to the image. According to the article, printed on January 12, 1874, Speaight had performed while feeling ill and died in his sleep later in the night. Doten was not alone in conflating the two: a quick internet search reveals that the many portraits of Speaight have become inseparable from his tragic death, despite having nothing to do with it in a literal sense. His death also became story and lore, and was used by Victorian reformers to call attention to the exploitation of children. In this context, this photograph becomes a story about child labor and the stresses of fame, showing how one simple photograph can be deployed in multiple ways, giving rise to multiple meanings and contexts.

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