Ebony and Ivory

Ebony and Ivory [J.R. Carter], c. 1987

The photograph, titled Ebony and Ivoery, is of a black man holding a small Greek statue figurine.  The man is J.R. Carter, a professional model that Day used in multiple works.  Carter seated in the nude, on a platform covered with an animal print cloth, against a matte black background.  The cloth and the darkness of his body heighten the racialized dynamic of the image.  The placement of Carter’s black body against a black background is abnormal as  the common practice was placing black bodies against white background in order to enhance the contrast.  Instead the body gets lost, sucked in by his black surroundings.  The Greek statue pops animal skin cloth the man Carter sits are the only thing that breaks up the immense and overwhelming blackness of the photo. We see a faint silhouette of his face.  His features are so shadowed though that it fades into the background.  The play of light on Carter’s muscled body against the matte background creates an interesting play of textures that speaks directly to the implied hardness of the material of Greek figurine held in the sitters hand.  The light is so bright against the small statue that it becomes a silhouette in white, softer than the hand that is holding it.

F. Holland Day (1864-1933), the Photographer of this photo was a Boston Born, Photographer.  He began photography as a hobby in 1886 [1].  By 1889 he joined a professional Camera club.  Possibly because of his own background, being the first generation to receive an education and have a strong interest in the arts from his family, Day worked closely with a Children’s Aid society to help poor children with reading and artistic pursuits.  One of the most famous children mentored by Day was Kahlil Gibran.  Day also funded Gibran’s education.  In 1895 Day opened his own Photography studio, the studio where this photo was taken.

Photography was tool Day used to speak to and play with the way the world was imagined.  This photograph does a fantastic job of showing this.  The image, though not a classic painting brings that to mind.  By playing with the classical male figure, but using a black body holding a classical body as imagined, a classical body that is white, the photograph forces a certain dialogue to happen. The role of Black and White, not just in photography, but in our social and historical perceptions of bodies is in question.  The celebration of an the male form the a black male body brings to mind questions about gender and sexuality, questions that swirled around F. Holland Day himself.

When I saw this picture, I was immediately reminded of not just classical nudes, but the images that would come later from Gordon Parks of black children with white dolls.  This photograph is a grown man, with an aesthetically pleasing body, placed with a small white doll. Rather than the doll representing social beauty and desirability though, the doll represents great civilizations and their knowledge, art, and aesthetics.  I would like to take a detour in speaking about this photograph though. I think it is important to speak of this photo through the experience of looking for it online.  When I decided I wanted to write about it, the first thing I did was a google search.

While I did receive some image search results, on page two of the image results surrounded by lots of guns, I was more struck by the first results, other media results that came up, namely the song Ebony and Ivory by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney (this is also the associated wikipedia page) and the SNL spoof of the same song from 1982.  Though the wikipedia page has links to other things known as Ebony and Ivory, this image is not one of them.  The lyrics of the songs are in a strange conversation with the photograph.

Ebony And Ivory Live Together In Perfect Harmony


We All Know That People Are The Same Where Ever We Go

There Is Good And Bad In Ev’ryone,

We Learn To Live, We Learn To Give

Each Other What We Need To Survive Together Alive.

Ebony and Ivory, Paul McCartney, 1982

Because photography is such an interesting medium to me, because a photo has so many lives, it becomes so interesting to take the intended and unintended meanings of the photograph in conversation with the digital trail that needs to be followed if we want to find out more about what we are seeing.  Knowing that in 1897 F. Holland Day titled this image he created Ebony and Ivory, and that in 1982 an international musical icon used the same wording, and contrasting imagery, though this time on a (classical) piano, to create a song that spoke towards many of the same social issues is something that I find amazing.  That as we move through the digital world they are now placed together in search results says something about the legacy of racial issue across society, media, and time.

1. Fanning, Patricia J. Through an uncommon lens: The life and photography of F. Holland Day. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *