Portrait of Henri Pille circa 1875. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Okay, internet. We get that Ryan Gosling is a good-looking dude, but frankly, we’re over it. By “it” we mean the innumerable number of “Hey girl” Tumblrs dedicated to him. We know he saved that one chick’s life, but even she’s fed up with all of the attention she’s getting over it. It’s time we turned our attention backwards in time to celebrate the men who were making us swoon before Gosling was even in diapers.
Michelle Legro, when she is not working as an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly, is the curator of the popular Tumblr account, My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, a site that publishes photos of men like Teddy Roosevelt and Orville Wright in the prime of their youths… with devastatingly handsome results. Legro stopped by our BTR offices to talk about what inspired her to start MDB and the men she’s posted about in the year the site has been operating. Sure, they didn’t save a journalist from oncoming traffic, but being the 26th President of our nation or giving man the gift of flight should count for something, right?
Michelle Legro: I think there are surprising people that deserve attention. I started [My Daguerreotype Boyfriend] on Memorial Day weekend last year because I was on Tumblr and I had seen something on [another Tumblr] FuckYeahHistoryCrushes and it was a picture of this criminal. His name was John Allen and it’s a picture of this guy with a description that says, “Stole some money” and “Sentenced to 6 months in jail. Age: 19” and it starts like running down sort of like a list of like…
BreakThru Radio: It was like his OKCupid profile?
ML: Yeah this was his OkCupid/Criminal Profile, [recalling profile content] “Age: 19 Height: 5’8″ Hair: Brown Eyes: Blue Occupation: Laborer.” And then underneath that it says, “Status: Single.” And then on FuckYeahHistoryCrushes, they were like, “He’s single, ladies!”
And the best part was then you look at this guy, and he looks like Jake Gyllenhaal came to life in 1850s England. Suddenly you’re thinking, “whoa, I had no idea…” and then I started going through and looking at all these criminal records and a lot of the criminals are young men between the ages of 16 and 25. The more you go through them, the more you’re like… I think this is the key: All of them are looking straight at the camera. They’re looking right at you, and I think this is the key behind My Daguerreotype Boyfriend. I’m always choosing pictures that are completely engaged with you. I mean, that is a little like “Hey girl,” because “Hey girl” is in the eyes. I want pictures of men that shoot straight through the centuries, and they’re looking directly at you, like no time has passed at all. And those are the kinds of pictures that I really wanna choose. They’re always looking right at you.
And so this is why pictures of criminals have been wonderful… pictures of baseball players, actors, and then also something that’s been really wonderful, and also part of the reason when I started over Memorial Day Weekend, was I started looking at pictures of Union and Confederate Soldiers. These pictures are all taken straight on, looking right at the camera, and again, it’s all young men between 16 and 25. And they’re just so engaging, these pictures.
BTR: So for anyone who’s not familiar My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, what are they seeing when they go on your website and where does the term “Daguerreotype Boyfriend” come from?
ML: So a daguerreotype is an early form of film processing. Basically it’s a plate of silver nitrate and you expose it. It takes a long time, about a minute or two, and then you put it in a bath… I wish I could be more technical than that. Silver nitrate in a bath of a chemical reveals the image. It was invented by Daguerre, Louis Daguerre, in about 1839. It’s interesting because the earliest photograph on my site is of Robert Cornelius, who’s basically the American pioneer of daguerreotypes in America, and he’s working in 1839 in Philadelphia at the same time that Louis Daguerre is working in France. Daguerre has come up with his process in France. I think he’s published it, but it hasn’t really come to America yet, and meanwhile Cornelius is working at the same time. So, what happens is that Cornelius ends up taking the first photograph, a self-portrait, of a human being. He takes it of himself, and it’s beautiful. I think they actually use it on the cover of [Random House’s] version of Wuthering Heights because it’s just stunning. It’s like Heathcliff has come alive. And the fact that it’s one of the first photographs ever taken, I feel, is the Daguerreotype Boyfriend. Like this picture just shoots straight through time. That person is stunningly beautiful. It’s the first picture of the human being ever made, and that really also spurred my reason behind making this site. I just realized how many of these early photographs are of incredibly handsome and beautiful men.
BTR: So how do you find the photos?
ML: I started out looking at pictures at criminals in these different places. Basically, on Flickr there’s this wonderful section called “The Commons,” which is from museums all around the world that take selections from their libraries and put them on the website. NASA has a section, Library of Congress has a section, New York Public Library has a section, and they have wonderfully organized them into sets. The great thing about Tumblr and the internet is that when archives go online, they want you to look at parts of the archive that they think you will want to look at. For instance, I looked at something recently from the Australian military archives, which is all Australian military personnel with animals. They know what the internet wants.
So they have sections purely of either daguerreotypes or early photographs of Union soldiers or of criminals or of actors. I look through these sets to see who is going to sort of jump out at me. For instance, I think it was in the New York Public Library that I found this section labeled “The Mount Joy Prison Portraits of Irish Independence,” which basically means it’s like 1850s, really young Irish men who have been captured for being political prisoners. You’re just gonna get some great pictures from that. There’s one picture in there with this guy who looks exactly like Josh Hartnett. It’s stunning.
As I went along, I started to get submissions from people, and that has actually really become what’s driven the site. People have become obsessed with sending me things, which is wonderful because I can’t scour these archives forever. At first it was famous people, but what’s been happening – it’s been very interesting – is lately they’ve been sending me pictures of their own grandparents, great grandparents, and ancestors. They’re always sent to me with the story of their lives, because I kind of have this thing that a great Daguerreotype Boyfriend has also lived a great Daguerreotype life. Like you may have never heard of them, but they’ve lived these amazing lives.
There are stories of the first former slave to graduate from West Point, and he’s in his beautiful West Point uniform in this insanely beautiful picture with a wonderful story. I think people see those and they start to send me pictures that are like “This is my great grandfather, this is the wonderful life he lived, he lived through the war, etc.” And you just see this beautiful picture that goes with it, and I love publishing those. Those are some of my favorite stories to publish.
BTR: So, what makes a great Daguerreotype Boyfriend so far is someone who looks confident, looks straight at the camera and also has some substance. He can’t just be a pretty face?
ML: He can’t just be a pretty face. Yeah, I’ve actually had people send me picture of just old-timey looking people, just thinking, “Oh look at this guy, he’s an old-timey man!” And I’m like, “No, no, no, he’s not a Daguerreotype Boyfriend.” I’m very distinct, sort of like a modeling agency. Like, I have a look that I need … and a great story.
I’ve also found that pictures of famous people when they were young are also very interesting. For instance, one of our greatest, most re-flagged pictures is of Teddy Roosevelt. I actually had found this picture a while ago, and it was also part of the reason I realized that this website should exist. It’s Teddy Roosevelt [at] like 16… maybe 17 or 18, on his Harvard crew team. He’s sitting in his chair and he’s all slouched back in his chair and he just got like crazy ripped muscles and crazy mutton chops and doesn’t have a stitch of fat on him and you’re like “Oh that Teddy Roosevelt?”
I think there’s also a picture of Orville Wright when he was young. He’s beautiful. He’s like looking out the window… just people that you wouldn’t normally think of as being “hot.” I think those pictures also really go a long way.
BTR: Yeah, I think that’s what cool about site, like it’s these famous people that you think of in a certain way and this kind of fleshes them out a little bit.
ML: Yeah, I always try to make sure that I put the age on there because there’s something about putting the age of the person in the photograph that makes is very real to me. If I know that this is a picture of Theodore Roosevelt, age 20, I think, “What am I doing at age 20? Where was I?” And you think of all the people that you’ve known and suddenly it becomes more real when see a picture of a person and you know the age of the person in that picture. You think about their lives at that time.
BTR: Have you gotten requests for photos of specific people?
ML: It’s funny, the most requested picture that I get is for Phineas Gage. When I say requested, I mean people send it in the most. So, Phineas Gage was this railroad worker who got a railroad spike through his skull. He was the first person to survive this accident. There’s this picture of him … I think it’s from the 1860s of him holding the rod he was impaled with. He’s extremely handsome; he basically has one side of his face where the eye is closed and it doesn’t move, but the other side of the face is very beautiful. I actually saw an instance where someone had photoshopped the face so that it was symmetrical, so you could get an idea of what he looked like. And you’re like “Oh my god! That guy is amazing looking.” So people have sort of latched onto the fact that, again, it’s an amazing story, he survived, and he’s this young man who’s handsome.
BTR: Has your site ever been compared to the “Hey girl” Tumblrs?
ML: Well the one that we get compared to is Bangable Dudes in History. It’s not a Tumblr, it’s an excellent website. It’s basically what I do, but the girl who runs it makes these pie charts that chart out why they’re bangable. So it would be like “Teddy Roosevelt: great hunter,” and there will be a section for that, and another one for “Like crew,” another for “Awesome mutton chops” on the chart.
Another is FuckYeahHistoryCrushes, which is fantastic, but it’s much more wide ranging. I think the difference is in … I don’t want to say “the quality” of the pictures I choose, but it’s in the quality of the pictures I choose. On FuckYeahHistoryCrushes, they put pictures of everything. I’m only going to take photographs. I’ll take more than daguerreotypes. I take ambertypes, tintypes, really going all the way into the 1920s, but I’m not going to take a painting because a painting doesn’t have that same shot through the heart element.
Hey Ryan, you’re still a handsome dude in our eyes, but just know that a long line of handsome dudes came before you and more will come to take your place. To hear a live recording of this interview, be sure to tune into the latest episode of Third Eye Weekly, airing today on BreakThru Radio.