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“Improbable Life”: Bain, the Baroness, and Public Photography

I first encountered Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) at a conference on modernism and comedy. While her performance style is not exactly comical, the Baroness is most notable for her eccentric writing and elaborate costumes, despite the fact that her title brought her no monetary stability. Born in Germany, she immigrated to the US with a husband who soon abandoned her, she married the Baron (her third husband) who soon died, and she made her way to the Greenwich Village art scene as a figure model, poet, and sculptor in 1913. She tried in vain to earn money through posing for painters and other artists, and she failed to hold down a job at a cigarette factory. Often, she resorted to theft—for her art and sustenance both—and was frequently jailed in the notoriously squalid prison, “The Tombs,” in Manhattan. Her reputation, as is often the case for New Women—the visual representations of whom Georgia Monaghan has recently explored in this forum—also lent her no security. Djuna Barnes and other friends were called on often for financial and emotional support. The Baroness eventually learned, however, that her life as an artist was a way to survive these troubling scenarios; when caught stealing parasols or dime-store beads, she would jump “from patrol wagons with such agility that policemen let her go in admiration.”[1] Sharing the title of Mama Dada with Gertrude Stein, the Baroness came to be known for her innovative gestures namely through the performative dimension of Dada, as explored by Amelia Jones.[2] I’d like to examine, here, how the Baroness fuses her everyday precarity with aesthetic ambition. In her performances, her body represents her vulnerability and her endurance simultaneously, which has implications both for what Dadaism is and how the archive captures it.

While the Baroness’s visage has been brought to us by various painters and photographers—including George Biddle, Theresa Bernstein, and Man Ray—she also posed for George Grantham Bain, an independent news photographer who would later be known as a significant contributor to international news photography. Bain would seek out newsworthy events and develop photographs to sell to newspapers, which were increasingly using photographs, rather than illustrations, as the visual norm in the 1910s and 1920s. In his wanderings around New York hoping to document the life of the city, Bain snapped two photographs of the Baroness in the 1920s, but he never sold them. As Bain participates in a developing documentarian aesthetic and conventionalizing of photography, he coincidentally stumbles into the burgeoning New York street culture in a way that complicates our memory of Dadaism's cultural presence. Most studies of the Baroness and Dadaism readily mark the movement’s incorporation of everyday objects as central to its modernist revolution. Dadaism’s fetish for the everyday, however, tends not to capture the stakes of actual everyday living—keeping oneself clean, healthy, and out of trouble. But when a news photographer captures a Dadaist in the wild and then those images are released into the expanse of a public archive, they inherit those stakes, taking on the burden of actual, unspectacular, and precarious living. At this incidental intersection between news photography and Dadaism, Bain’s photographs of the Baroness highlight the lived and living dimension of the archive.

Because Bain never sold these photographs, their existence as public photography typifies the aspect of the archive that is merely a reservoir of stuff, of uncritical objects, of an absence of answers—modernism’s attic of old junk. The circumstances of Bain’s photographs draw us into a space of cultural meaning-making that isn’t exactly aesthetic nor entirely historical. The Baroness’s gestures initiate a funny inversion of meaning-making; she prefers to show meaning’s hand or call meaning’s bluff. Through her, art does not help us find meaning in our lives, but rather contributes to our everyday lives by giving us activity, humor, and atmosphere that come from an abundance of aesthetic passion. Strangely enough, her flamboyant contortions exemplify the ordinariness of her archive precisely because they illustrate the excesses of modern living.

Woman standing on porch in costume
Fig. 1. George Grantham Bain. Baroness v.Freytag-Loringhoven. Photograph. between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In Bain’s first image (fig. 1), the Baroness’s body is a pylon that pulls one leg up abnormally high, maybe even to prove her acrobatic agility. Rather than shifting her weight forward, moving her center of gravity as one would mid-step, she keeps herself stationary as if not to walk but instead to strut in place. That strut would surely be peculiar, accompanied as it would be by eerily angled arm movements that jut and swim along with her. In some ways, her pose echoes the awkwardness of acrobats or athletes who pose superficially in a position ready for action; this kind of picture was often used for “spot news” where something like a big sporting event was reported on as rapidly as possible.[3] Instead of waiting for the photographer at the event to get the picture to the newspaper, they’d take press release photographs with the athletes beforehand. Doing so gives the event the illusion of action even if it can’t be captured directly. Similarly, the Baroness’s oddly deliberate position gives us a paratext of gesture, something beyond, before, or after movement that suggests the trajectory of motion without visibly apprehending it (much as with the photographic effects of blur described by Alix Beeston).

The Baroness’s costume is representative of her daily pageantry. She was notorious for her elaborate costumes that illustrate her method of making her body, as Irene Gammel puts it, “art in process,” “an eternal serializing of art without end” through an intimacy with everyday things.[4] The Baroness’s dresses were always made from familiar objects; she made elaborate dresses and headpieces from rubbish off the street, rotting vegetables, kitchen utensils, toys, car parts, and parrot feathers (from her own pet parrot). She often exposes a slippage between hand-made and ready-made, wearing acrobatic leotards, teaspoons as earrings, and tomato cans as accessories, with her favorite make-up to match: yellow face powder and black lipstick. As much as the pieces were ordinary, they were also bizarrely arranged in the fabric of her life of extremes, juxtaposing poverty with the gleaned surplus of modern production to render a complex amalgam of material need and material rejection. She adorned her body with whatever connoted the busy-ness of everyday life: vehicle taillights hung on her dress as she moved through the streets alongside the cars and motorbuses; a letter stamp on her cheek embodied both New York traffic and the postal circulations (Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 187). The Baroness understood everyday life as “perpetual motion” and so she became an index for the city, performing her own documentation of New York (290).

So, what does it mean for Bain to go around independently documenting New York City, to arrive at the Baroness, and then for her to do this? I can only speculate about the circumstances that bring Bain and the Baroness together ever so briefly, in a mode increasingly common in scholarship on archival gaps.[5] Methodological speculation is well suited for Bain’s public photographs because we are reading the Baroness’s image as well as the circumstances by which her image is here with us. Bain’s other photograph from the same occasion features Claude McKay, whom the Baroness visited frequently in the Village offices of his leftist newspaper, Liberator (fig. 2). It’s likely that McKay is there with her as they prepare to attend a party, one which they’ll no doubt be late for because she’ll be busy with the costume’s finishing touches (or humoring a man with a camera). In intersecting with Bain’s documentary aesthetic, the Baroness represents a modern imperative to live art rather than simply make it; the photographs witness the Baroness making art into a lifestyle, and her peculiarities anticipate the colorful liberation of New York street culture.

Man and woman standing in costume
Fig. 2. George Grantham Bain. Claude McRay, Baroness v.Freytag [sic]. Photograph. between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Despite her best effort at turning her physical body into art in the name of a nonconformist lifestyle, the Baroness slips into the quietude of the archive for nearly a century. Before Bain started his own news firm, Bain News Service (BNS), he worked for the United Press. In 1948, the Library of Congress acquired the BNS photographic files, putting most of his collection into the public domain; only a select few were purchased and used contemporaneously. To be in the public domain suggests access, mass visibility, and a sort of aesthetic and political freedom that is nevertheless cheapened by its extraction from the material laws of commerce. Indeed, though these public domain images may be highly visible or accessible, no one really wants them—public domain images connote a sense of worthlessness, because they cost nothing. In the case of the Baroness, we see that no private party wanted to own her image, and despite her exhibitionism, she was not even newsworthy. Although publicity is not the same as ordinariness, the archive, particularly the huge body of work called the public domain, paradoxically collapses that distinction at the same time as it exacerbates it. The Baroness comes to us via the public domain because of this precise perceptual paradox of publicity and mundanity. The Baroness helps us get at everyday modernity by way of the images we capture and then leave in disuse.

When the Baroness poses for Bain, regardless of the act’s historical (in)significance, she is doing more than performing like a theatrical actor performs. The Baroness navigates the world’s unpredictability by responding in kind, through spontaneity, but in a way that is also distinct from the aleatory methods like those that fellow Dadaist Tristan Tzara might propose. When the Baroness transforms herself through the objects or through the positions she puts her body in, she abandons herself. Social courtesy is denied; she closes her eyes in both of Bain’s images. Instead of yielding to social scrutiny, she chooses to mobilize the most flexible, limber, agile of instruments with which to resist the world’s torque: her own body. She behaves not like a cultural filter, taking the world into herself and producing something by transforming the content. She instead transforms herself.

The camera, in turn, only happens to catch its focus: on her face and arched right hand. With closed eyes, she gives us frowning contortions, as if, despite her body’s exceptionally modern accoutrement, she believed whole-heartedly in her own austerity. In the first image, she does not face Bain head-on—she faces outward from the porch, as if it were a stage, at a forty-five-degree angle. We might imagine Bain coming across her as she is here, or perhaps knowing whom to seek out, knocking on her door and asking her to come pose outdoors, where the late-afternoon sun gives her brighter light. She is not exactly giving the camera what it desires, nor is she quite parodying the camera’s interest in interesting things. Her performance is not peripheral to her other art. She is not, like Charlie Chaplin might, making a film or taking pictures about the performances within films or pictures, which would make this posing for Bain derivative or promotional for her more serious work. Her performance is not special nor even a novelty in the name of reputation. We get the sense that the Baroness poses here as she would pose on the front porch any day of the week.

The Baroness shimmers in and out of the modernist imagination, partly because of her grotesque sexuality and interpersonal skirmishes. The Baroness doesn’t embody the classical beauty ideals that Eva Tanguay or Mae West would in later years. She puts herself into awkward poses and pursues her romantic interests ravenously. If scholars of modernism know about the Baroness, it is primarily as a person of interest in the 1920 obscenity trial against editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap for publishing excerpts of Ulysses in The Little Review. Anderson and Heap had become friends with the Baroness and regularly published her poems. For some scholars, the Ulysses trial was a means of vilifying the New Woman, a modern figuration who, alongside the suffragettes, was loudly critical of the sexually-repressive hegemony. Anderson and Heap, after all, were lesbians and closely associated with the rambunctious Baroness, who was radical enough to be made “conspicuously absent” from the charges put against the two editors (Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 256).[6] As a result of the trial, Anderson and Heap disaffiliated from the Baroness socially and professionally, which produced considerable agitation. When Anderson expressed solidarity with Joyce, saying “James Joyce is in Paris—starving!,” the Baroness, too indignant to respond to Anderson, retorted in a letter to Djuna Barnes: “and what do I—in New York?” (Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 258).

While this may appear melodramatic, even narcissistic, of the Baroness, who did not author Ulysses, it indicates that her daily life involved a persistent and gendered erasure by those around her that exacerbated the precarity in which she found herself. “I lived in a filthy tenement,” she wrote, “starving in fighting [sic] wolf bravely with ‘posing’” (cited in Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 258). It seems, then, that the Baroness’s personality and work was difficult to protect, especially in the periphery.

The Baroness was virtually absent from modernist history for seventy-five years, persevering only as a cult figure of the New York underground. We certainly don’t have enough photographs of her costumes, and we only recently have gained better access to her poems. While she published often with The Little Review, her poetry collection was never published in her lifetime, and after her death in 1927 it passed to the guardianship of Barnes, who also never managed to publish it.[7] Her collected poems were finally published nearly a century later in Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo’s Body Sweats (2016).

Perhaps the Baroness is absent from history because she was in fact too much in history. Renewed interest in her modernist standing has yielded experimental forms of documentary like Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan’s The Filmballad of Mamadada (2013), and pseudo-preservation projects like Lene Berg’s imagined remaking of the lost 1921 collaboration between Ray, Duchamp, and the Baroness, “Shaving the Baroness” (2010). Patched together from letters and notes, Berg’s film engages the antecedent of the archive, lost footage that is only referred to but never seen.

As modernist scholars, we must continue to find generative ways of engaging this fragmentary archive in order to question what it means to accumulate an archive in the first place. My attention to these photographs is not precisely an act of recovery—in fact, of the few remaining images of the Baroness, Bain’s easily became the most popular among her aficionados. Rather, I hope my reading speaks to the relationship between our attention to archival objects and the ordinariness of those objects. Because the public domain is full of surplus material with transitory significance, the Baroness illustrates that an excess of modern living exists not only in our archival objects but in our attention—or inattention—to them as well. To care about the Baroness’s images is simultaneously to care about her archival ordinariness that, counterintuitively, reveals what Melanie Micir calls “a passion that supersedes their formal disarray or their forgottenness in the eyes of history.”[8] Being forgotten by history is the risk of simply living, but it’s just as much a risk of living eccentrically. In her Dadaist liveliness, the Baroness shows that in everyday life, passion takes many understated forms.

Bain’s photographs of the Baroness indicate that amid the ceaseless ephemera in the public domain, publicity does not denote visibility. Our knowledge of the Baroness is informed by archival gaps, but it is tied, further still, to her fading career. When the Baroness returned to Europe in the mid-1920s, she lost all artistic exuberance, being reduced to selling newspapers to pay rent. Claude McKay happened upon her in Berlin, calling it “shockingly sad” that she became “a shabby wretched female selling newspapers, stripped of all her rococo richness of her clothes, her speech, her personality.”[9] The Baroness left us a scrappy record of the time she spent in Europe prior to her sudden death. But in a letter to Eleanor Fitzgerald, she wrote: “In all my utter poverty—my improbable life—standing on [a] windy corner of [the] street selling newspapers in winter at Christmastime—in snow and sleet” (cited in Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 322).

The Baroness calls her own life “improbable”—herself wondering about the nature of avant-garde ordinariness. But “improbable” might also reflect the instability in her life, work, and criticism. In light of Bain’s photographs, the Baroness defamiliarizes our processes of aesthetic evaluation, slows the creation of historical anecdote, and forges a new understanding of how an archive makes an historical figure visible to scholarly or public inquiry. As such, she encourages us to interrogate not only how we construct a memory of modernism, but also how we determine meaning after that construction. The Baroness is not simply a forgotten modern who died extremely poor and without worldly fame. It seems to me that she’s understudied because the peculiarities of her poetry or her gestures are not meaningful enough to transcend those biographical factors. I wonder, then, if Dadaism as a movement conducts its aesthetic work according to an entirely different metric, as if we have no hermeneutic for Dadaism except through life itself.


[1] Linda Lappin, “Dada Queen in the Bad Boys’ Club: Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven,” Southwest Review 89.2-3 (2004), 307–19, 309.

[2] See Amelia Jones, “’Women’ in Dada: Elsa, Rrose, and Charlie,” in Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity, ed. Naomi Sawelson-Gorse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001) 142–72. See also Amelia Jones, Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

[3] Peter Galassi, “Pictures of The Times,” in Pictures of the Times: A Century of Photography from The New York Times, ed. William Safire and Susan Kismaric (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 17–22, 20.

[4] Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, A Cultural Biography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 284.

[5] See, for instance, Pardis Dabashi’s article for Visualities, “Dear Nella, What Did You See?”, as well as recent work attending to archival gaps by Saidiya Hartman, Allyson Nadia Field, Laura Helton, and Jean-Christophe Cloutier.

[6] For the full account of the trial, see Edward de Garzia, “Girls Lean Back Everywhere,” in Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Laws of Obscenity and the Assault of Genius (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3–39.

[7] Until only recently, the Baroness’s material was held within Djuna Barnes’ repository at the University of Maryland Special Collections.

[8] Melanie Micir, The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 15.

[9] Claude McKay, Long Way from Home (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970), 105; quoted in Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 320.