Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 31, 2018
John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American New York: Liveright, 2015. 320 pp.; Many color ills.; Many  b/w ills. Hardcover $49.95 (9780871404688)

Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American has already received admiring reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, and New Republic among other media outlets. The 2015 book by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier is worth returning to here for what it offers specifically to artists and art historians.

Pulling together extensive images of and writings by Frederick Douglass, many never before published, Picturing Frederick Douglass is a treasure trove for several fields, including photography history and practice, art histories of the African diaspora, and histories of American art. Widely accessible in language and price, the lavishly illustrated book is welcome for classroom use in these fields as well as for use in broad-ranging special topics classes, such as visual biography and protest images. In anthologizing Douglass’s lectures, this book offers an opportunity to all of us interested in making canons of art history more inclusive. In teaching a methods and theory of Western art history class, for example, Douglass’s 1861 “Lecture on Pictures” offers a theory of visual culture and justice that can easily enter such a course alongside excerpts from Hegel’s 1830s Philosophy of Fine Arts.

In five parts, plus introduction, afterword, and epilogue, Picturing Fredrick Douglass focuses on the sheer volume of Douglass’s writing on photography and the record number of photographs taken of Douglass during his lifetime. In their introduction, Stauffer, Trodd, and Bernier note that these may seem surprising achievements for “a black man and former slave” best known for his work to abolish slavery (ix). Although the authors have done the field a tremendous service by locating 160 photographs of Douglass, the book’s argument is more than a numerical achievement. Assembling a vast archive, the authors show that Douglass’s work for the equal rights of African Americans was deeply connected with his sustained interest in photography. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers a pithy summary in his epilogue to the book, that photographs of Douglass served to “both display and displace,” to substitute the “black sentient citizen-subject” for the “black slave-object” (209, 204).

Douglass wrote about photography during the 1860s, inspired by the function of images during the Civil War. He also engaged with the medium by arranging portraits of himself for more than five decades, from around 1841 until his death in 1895. The authors point out that Douglass’s escape from slavery in 1838 was nearly coincident with the creation of photography, noting that his increasing fame as an abolitionist orator over the 1840s and 1850s accompanied the technical advancements in photography that helped to spread his image. By identifying clustered images from a single sitting, Stauffer, Trodd, and Bernier allow us to analyze the ones Douglass preferred to circulate. The archival volume lets us see Douglass, the sitter, as the aesthetic author of evolving images that develop similar themes regardless of shifting photographers. Across photographs we see an individual who almost never smiles, thereby refuting caricatures of the “happy” slave. His bearing, costume, and expression emphasize dignity and respectability, as if through his circulating his images Douglass “‘out-citizened’ white citizens at a time when most whites did not believe that African Americans should be citizens” (xiii). Apart from these pictorial constants, the authors show that Douglass’s continual self-fashioning across photographs charted the evolution of a self, which itself constituted an argument against the fixed status of the slave and for civil rights.  

Douglass envisioned photographs as a counter to the dehumanizing vision of caricatures, including those by which he was advertised as a runaway. However, in an era before halftone reproduction, Douglass had to rely on engravings for the wider circulation of his photographs. He doubted the objectivity of white engravers and painters enculturated to see African Americans as looking a particular way. The authors offer anecdotes about specific engraved images to which Douglass objected, for example an 1849 engraving that portrayed him with a slight smile, and Stauffer, Trodd, and Bernier include many of these to allow a comparison by readers.

The first part of the book includes 60 of the 160 separate poses of Douglass along with engravings and lithographs from the photographs in chronological sequence from ca. 1841 to Douglass’s death in 1895. (Part 5 includes a full catalogue raisonné of all 160 photographs.) Beautifully reproduced images in color and black and white appear with vital information including photographer, date, place of sitting, type of photograph, dimensions, and repository as well as short descriptions of the photographer and historical situation. For example, the book recovers John White Hurn, a white Philadelphia telegraph operator and photographer, who had helped Douglass escape arrest following the capture of abolitionist John Brown. He went on to take nine photographs of the leader.

The book also draws attention to four black photographers who portrayed Douglass: Cornelius Battey in New York; James Reed in New Bedford, Massachusetts; James Hiram Easton in Rochester, Minnesota; and James Presley Ball in Cincinnati. The format of shorter captions used throughout the book’s parts provides snippets of accessible information for the general reader, but the structure often spreads the authors’ arguments across several entries. Part 2, “Contemporaneous Artwork,” also unfolds chronologically, featuring pictures not based on photographs, which explore the “war waged over Douglass’s visual persona” during his lifetime that set self-possessed photographs against dehumanizing caricature (77). The authors conclude that Douglass’s photographs had won the visual conflict by the close of the Civil War. However, subsequent captions also demonstrate the ways that Douglass attempted and often failed to control his own image, from his objections to the frontispiece of the international editions of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself to his threats to sue the publishers of images that depicted him looking happy or were “coarse” woodcuts not up to his pictorial standards.

Part 3, “The Photographic Legacy,” considers paintings, drawings, sculptures, and public murals created in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries based on specific photographs of Douglass. The authors create an inventory of murals across the United States including those in which Douglass appears alongside other historical figures.

Part 4 of the book prints Douglass’s writings on photography, including three of four never published: “‘Lecture on Pictures” (1861), “Age of Pictures” (1862), and “Pictures and Progress” (1864–65). It is beyond the bounds of this review to provide close readings of these fascinating primary sources; however, Douglass develops an important image theory worth foregrounding here. In “Lecture on Pictures,” Douglass emphasized the picture over the text as more accessible and as a shared human language. Douglass explores pictures as definitional to the human experience, proposing picture making and picture appreciating as the capacities that divide man from animals. He explicitly recommends this classificatory model to Josiah Nott and George Glidden, physicians and authors of Types of Mankind (1854), who vehemently defended slavery. Douglass made clear his claim that “picturing” evidences a common human origin and acts against the racist theory of polygenesis, or a separate creation of each “race.”

In a second lecture, “Age of Pictures,” Douglass builds on his ideas to consider the flood of pictures that entered the modern world. Ultimately, the 1863 text seems to act as a transition between the ideas in the more theoretical “Lecture on Pictures” and the more politically pointed “Pictures and Progress.” In the latter, Douglass makes a complex argument for the reformist power of photography; it is “the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the idea contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible” (170). Thus, critique and progress are made possible only by a comparison of images. He considers reformers as “picture-makers” because they offer another view of the world.

Photography’s role in democratizing the consumption of images has become part of the canonical history of Western visual culture. However, Picturing Frederick Douglass articulates links among democracy, reform, and photography at both the historical and theoretical levels. Historians and theorists of photography may occasionally recoil from the positivist understandings of photography as able to bear “witness to African American’s essential humanity” (xi). The authors locate the belief in the camera’s ability to tell “the truth” to mid-nineteenth-century audiences, but Picturing Frederick Douglass also points to the work being done now that advances this reformist vision. The book closes with an afterword by Douglass’s great-great-great grandson Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., who highlights the work of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an organization whose goal is to stop human trafficking and contemporary slavery. Picturing Frederick Douglass provides a persuasive reminder that nineteenth-century images and image theory resonate in the present. 

Lauren Kroiz
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley