Frederick Douglass’s Faith in Photography


Matthew Pratt Guterl in TNR:

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.

More here.