Frederick Douglass's Faith in Photography

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tags: photography, Frederick Douglass



Matthew Pratt Guterl teaches at Brown University and is the author of "Seeing Race in Modern America" and "Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe."

Towards the end of the late nineteenth century, Arabella Chapman, a young African American woman from upstate New York, began to collect and mount personally meaningful tintypes and cartes de visite in a set of small, leather-bound albums. Frederick Douglass appears on page thirty-three of Chapman’s first album—opposite the stern-faced abolitionist John Brown. Douglass is seated in a high-backed wooden chair, wearing a black suit, his hands in his lap, offering a direct, level gaze outward. One elbow is propped up on a side table, and his body is open to the viewer and slightly turned. A plain, white wall is in the background. Such an image conveyed a powerful, dignified seriousness, a certain kind of formal grace. This was a portrait meant to move minds and hearts. 

Douglass, we learn in Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, was convinced of the importance of photography. He wrote essays on the photograph and its majesty, posed for hundreds of different portraits, many of them endlessly copied and distributed around the United States. He was a theorist of the technology and a student of its social impact, one of the first to consider the fixed image as a public relations instrument. Indeed, the determined abolitionist believed fervently that he could represent the dignity of his race, inspiring others, and expanding the visual vocabulary of mass culture. 

Picturing Frederick Douglass documents the wide range of images of Douglass that have shaped our sense of the man. The first part of the books lays out striking photographs taken over the course of his long public life, presenting them as detailed, reliable, historical artifacts. New, cheaper techniques of reproduction, Douglass believed, allowed for a truer, more precise impression of the person on display. They also made it possible for the subject of the photograph to determine, to some extent, how people read and understood the image. Frame by frame, the authors of the volume show how carefully Douglass tried—in an age where, for so many people of color, this was simply unimaginable—to control meaning. 

He developed genres of his own representation, each with a particular aim, reproducing a set of postures and wardrobes in various sittings so perfectly that one often needs a magnifying glass to see the fine-grained distinctions. A hand closed in one portrait is open in another. A wrinkle in a vest is just slightly different here.

Departing from Victorian convention, he set aside big, busy backdrops, and emphasized a certain kind of politicized minimalism, with the lens zeroed in on his face, his body, and his extraordinary presence. A formal look at Samuel Miller’s 1852 daguerreotype of Douglass, for instance, notes that the center of the image is abolitionist’s stern, tight-lipped mouth. After this, the eye moves up, to the furrowed bridge of his nose, and to his serious gaze. The background is blank. The tight, oval frame of the image trims off any distracting—and, to Douglass, perhaps irrelevant —minutiae. The overall effect is stern, sincere, moving. This is an image meant to convey character. ...




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