Jenny Gathright in Harvard Magazine:
Guess who was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.” Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Studies, prepares for the surprise on my face. As it turns out, the answer is Frederick Douglass. Researchers have found at least 160 photographs of Douglass, who praised the medium of photography for enabling him to counter the racial caricatures so frequent in artistic representation of black people at the time. It should not be wholly surprising that one of the most prominent American figures of his era would also be the most photographed—yet black history is often marginalized in the history of the West.
…In his 1861 address at Boston’s Tremont Temple, Frederick Douglass said, “Pictures, like songs, should be left to make [their] own way in the world. All they can reasonably ask of us is that we place them on the wall, in the best light, and for the rest allow them to speak for themselves.” The exhibit (which has minimal text accompanying the photos) seems to heed Douglass’s advice. Mussai wrote me, “The notion of the sitters’ gaze and a sense of agency, dignity, and beauty emanating from the portraits is crucial in the curatorial organization of the exhibition: especially as you sit in the final gallery, surrounded by the different members of the African Choir, each engaging the viewer directly.” To Mussai, the final gallery is a “space of transformative encounters, and a kind of sanctuary to appreciate, reflect, and imagine what their lives might have been like…and what our lives are like today.”