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Sometimes it takes a hundred selfies to capture the one that rings out with recognition: this, think about Marian Hooper Adams, who went by Clover, the society doyenne of post-Civil War D. Clover and her husband, writer Henry Adams, lived across from the White House in a grand, creaky manse, where she played hostess to intellectuals and diplomats as they came through town.
In their sitting room, Henry was king, while Clover played subservient wife, as women of the time were expected to do.
But upstairs, in her little room, she worked with colloidal silver, and there, Clover was queen of her domain.
She started taking photographs as a side hobby in 1883 (Henry would never let her go pro with it), collecting pictures of her friends and family and the politicians that flowed through her house, the ones she wasn’t really supposed to talk to all that much.
They don’t see where her image is headed, where it will take up space in the infinite.
This is scary for them, this lack of control, this sense that her face could go anywhere, pop up anywhere.
She was expected to stay quiet and erase herself, a smiling woman with a polished silver tray.
Maybe they are older than she is, making jokes about Narcissus and the end of civilization as we know it.
Maybe they are all men, deeply affronted by a woman looking at herself with longing, a woman who is both the see-er and the seen, the courier of her own message.
I think about the ones who never got to use front-facing cameras, that technological ease and excess that we have so quickly taken for granted.
I think about Julia Margaret Cameron, who got her first camera as a gift, in 1863, when she was 48 years old. We know this from her great-niece, Virginia Woolf, who wrote that Julia was an ugly duckling in a family full of cameo complexions; her nickname was “Talent,” where her sisters got to be called “Beauty.” Cameron became instantly obsessed with photography and dove into her second act.