Historic Photos of Ernest Hemingway, new this month from Turner Publishing, combines over 200 black and white photographs of Hemingway with text and captions by James Plath to form a sort of visual biography of one of America’s most iconic writers. Spanning the entire 61 years of the author’s life, the book treats us to over a dozen photos of Hemingway’s childhood, including several (surprisingly high resolution) images of Papa as a baby. Admittedly, these are kind of uncanny, but for me, seeing baby Hemingway is not nearly as strange as seeing the many photos of teenage/early 20s Hemingway. The Key West Hemingway–bearded and burly–has become so iconic that seeing the writer in his youth is almost like seeing an entirely different person. He’s very handsome, with a vigorous smile that radiates charm and energy–much like the older Hemingway–but with a certain sheen and optimism missing in the older Hemingway. Even on crutches or in a wheelchair, young Hemingway seems less damaged than old Hemingway.
As you might expect, a majority of the pictures throughout the volume find Hemingway engaged in some sort of sport or activity–sport fishing, hunting, sailing, boxing, skiing, and so on. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. There’s plenty of shots of Hemingway with famous friends (fishing, boxing, and, um, drinking), but also many images of Hemingway with his various families (the man had four wives in 25 years). There’s an unexpected vitality in the photos that sustains throughout the volume, due in part perhaps to Hemingway’s engaging, larger-than-life personality, but also attributable to the fact that the book works in some ways as a cultural history of the first half of the 20th century. The images trace Hemingway from his Illinois birth, to Italy in WWI, to his ex-pat glory days in Paris (in particular) and Europe (in general). Of course, there’s plenty of Papa in Key West, as well as his time in Bimini on his boat Pilar. As Hemingway moves from Spain to Communist Cuba, we see his health deteriorate: all that boxing and drinking and loving and fighting has clearly caught up to him. He looks very, very old for a man in his late fifties. With the specter of his impending suicide hanging over the final photos, it’s hard not to read pain and depression into those last images.
Plath’s text adds greater depth to Hemingway’s biography than one might expect from a coffee table book. He explicates the photos by providing context and background, both historical and literary, and while he’s never gossipy, there’s a wry humor and ironic understatement to many of his captions that help to shade Hemingway’s character (Plath’s deadpan note that Hemingway “broke poet Wallace Steven’s jaw, marooned poet Archibald MacLeish on an abandoned cay after an argument [and] got sore at Fitzgerald when he messed up on timekeeping in a supposedly friendly boxing match” is particularly funny). Plath also proffers insight into Hemingway’s literary works. And about those literary works. They are not dominant in Historic Photos of Ernest Hemingway, nor should they be. If anything, the book makes a solid visual case for Hemingway as icon, a figure that at least appeared to live the life he wrote about. Plath’s text is hardly fawning, pointing to many of Hemingway’s myriad flaws, but it also recognizes Hemingway as a kind of symbol of America’s progression in the 20th century, its movement from isolation to the world stage. Recommended.