He was a publisher, collector, and patron, but his greatest work lay in his photographic studies and his vanguard work in the Pictorialist movement. In a day when most gay men worked and lived behind the scenes, we only have his associations and his art to throw any light upon his sexual predilections.
He was a financially important patron of Aubrey Beardsley, photographed Edward Carpenter and made classical studies portraying actual, mythical and religious history. It was these studies, usually with the help of a coterie of young boys, that really reveal his sexual leanings. Their style followed the European Decadent movement. His work, though, was at the forefront of the Pictorialist movement in the United States. He was a major voice in the New World for the recognition of photography as a pure art and not just a sterile record of reality. In its early incarnations he was the face of the Pictorialist movement and its American offspring, the Photo-Secessionists. He was later replaced by the presence of Alfred Stieglitz in the artistic consciousness of these movements. In 1902 he broke with Stieglitz after a serious argument, distancing himself from its power centre. He had the means and the emotional predisposition to 'go it alone' if need be. If difficulties ever arose to block his interests he could act as he pleased. In this case he broke with the movement.
Aside from his boys (of which the pubescent Kahlil Gibran was a model), he also featured himself, and even his black servant, in his work. There is a frank homoerotic element in these studies of boys with lyres, in tunics (or not), or in sailor suits. There is also a kind of modern permissiveness in the images, as old as they are, and as much as they may also disturb some people. Regardless, they still stir the aesthete in all of us.
Having been born at the chaotic end of the American Civil War, he lived on into the first years of the Great Depression, dying in 1933 at the age of 69. By the year of his death WPA photographers were roaming the American plains and taking some of the most iconic photography that the world has since seen. The hard-bitten imagery of strife in the face of economic hardship was a cauldron for the forging of a new artistic temperament - and a whole new generation of photographers, who would make a lasting impression on the art of photography to the present day. Photography as an art form matured into one of the three legs of modern mass media by the end of the Second World War.
Was Day opportunistic or predatory? That is a hard question to answer, but there are clues to be found. Any question of racism can be dismissed. He grew up in a now vanished class of enlightened money. His mother was a prominent abolitionist. We can say, considering how private Day was, that he was somewhat opportunistic, but he merely used the people around him for his artistic ends. Being an avant-garde artist in a staunchly conservative Boston, he took what help he could muster. For a photo series on the crucifixion (he played Christ), local neighbours in Norwwood Massachusetts helped him with the outdoor staging. Was he a lover of boys? A pedophile, or even a pederast? That is a much harder question to answer. In any event, all the players in these now forgotten mythic renditions are dead, all having passed away along with this quite arch and interesting form of photography.
Detail of the series on Saint Sebastian
Day in the costume of a medieval nobleman
Day with his manservant
The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran as a young boy
Day photographed with Maynard White