Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American

Image of Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American
Release Date: 
November 1, 2015
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History as documented through the image has a short historiography. Until recently, even the nobility lacked multiple images or sometimes any likeness at all. Only with photography in the mid-1800s would this particular kind of study come into its own. Queen Victoria's life, for example, finds documentation in hundreds of images although largely in formal paintings, statues, and photographs that hardly grant the viewer any visual access to the real person.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, respectively, were documented in likenesses as they looked as representatives of their times of the American Civil War. The pictures of Lincoln became iconic and even like the man surrounded in fact, academic legend, and popular myth. Here in Picturing Frederick Douglass, three authors do an objective visual appraisal of another famous representative of the era.

This book opens with "Frederick Douglass was in love with photography" and, like so much of this book, that phrase has powerful and very different meanings. He actually gave at least four talks on the subject and the authors of this book document 160 separate photographs of the man. (Lincoln, by contrast, has only 126 although Queen Victoria had 428 photographs.)

John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier tell the story of the images of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) as much as surviving records allow. Much appears in the facts behind the people and processes that created the images, from the oldest surviving likeness of Douglass ca. 1841, just three years after his escape from slavery but also as his career as the great abolitionist had begun, to modern representations. Any such project is a monumental undertaking because it requires so much research of different types as well as special problems in production and acquisition of permission.

What the authors/compilers have achieved here should set standards for this still relatively small field of endeavor. The physical quality and properties of the book would honor any coffee table and please the fortunate recipient of it as a gift.

If the owner of this volume stops there, however, he or she makes a mistake. It deserves study as a worthy contribution to the scholarship on its subject. Even the introduction provides a documented essay of how Douglass felt about photography. Some individuals used photographs for engravings that attacked races and nationalities, as well as arguing for eugenics. Douglass used copies of his likeness to promote his causes for ending human bondage and raising human dignity for almost everyone. He, however, usually formally posed for the camera and few images depict him at home or with his family members.

The sections that follow provide an example on how to organize the best of such a tome. Part 1 gives background on sixty of the most important likenesses of Douglass. A similar study of contemporary art, often based in photography comes next. The authors then review the history of the use of the image of Frederick Douglass from his own time to the present.

Part 4 consists of an in-depth discourse on how the iconic public champion for humanity viewed photography democratized society by creating an accurate record that almost anyone could afford. The last section is a catalog of the known photographs of Douglass, an important guide for archivists and collectors.

The authors point out that the images of Douglass popularized and memorialized reality over misinformation, propaganda, and myth. In the South, the politically dominant planter class had suppressed images of slavery to hide ugly realities. 

Douglass, however, only came over time to understand this concept whereby he "embraced photography as the democratic art." As the authors write, "It was the Civil War that inspired Douglas to write and speak on photography." The same man who helped to invent the modern autobiography genre came to see that a single image could convey more than thousands of words that too often went unread.

The full title to the contrary, this book is not an illustrated biography of Douglass. Numerous other books cover his life, however. Even the epilogue by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides instead a special look at the view of African Americans in caricature and realty in images, with an emphasis on Douglass. The afterword by Kenneth B. Morris Jr., similarly, gives a testament to the inspiring legacy of his ancestor on his family, made possible partly by what survives in the images, including in the statuary. At the least, a chronology of Douglass’ life would have been helpful.