Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass would become one of the most well-known abolitionists, orators, and writers of his time. He understood and heralded not only the power of the written or spoken word, but also the power of the visual image — especially, his own likeness. He therefore sat for portraits wherever and whenever he could. As a result, Douglass was photographed more than any other American of his era: 160 distinct images (mostly portraits) have survived, more than Abraham Lincoln at 126. Many of these rare, historically significant images are published for the first time in “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American,” by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier.
This book shows all 160 photos and delves into Douglass’s life and passions, including photography. In his writings, Douglass praises Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype, which made the developing process easier and cheaper, and in turn made photography available to the masses. By the mid-19th century, there were portrait studios all over the Northern United States. Almost everyone in a free state could afford to have their picture taken — even non-whites. Douglass therefore called photography a “democratic art.”
The images of Douglass are arranged chronologically, beginning with the oldest known surviving portrait circa 1841—the year he started his career as an abolitionist speaker. This daguerreotype is a small, head-to-torso oval portrait. He looks straight into the camera with a look of defiance.
In 1850, Douglass attended the Fugitive Slave Law Convention in Cazenovia, N.Y. A daguerreotypist named Ezra Greenleaf Weld captured this real moment in history — Douglass seated with other abolitionists in an apple orchard. This is very rare image of Douglass since not only was it taken outside, but he is shown with other people. He appears more in focus than the other sitters, perhaps because of his familiarity with getting his picture taken.
Douglass understood he could use photographs to carry his message. Douglass often gave his portraits away to promote his talks, to increase his public persona and to support African American causes. At the time, portraits of him were made into lithographs and engravings which spread his image and message across the globe. After the war, the portraits of him were usually in three-quarter view. He often looks off into the distance to convey his ‘statesman” status. He is shown as a dignified, well-dressed black man, whom people recognized as a leader and scholar. He hoped that people’s perceptions of blacks would change by seeing his likeness. It would refute their racial stereotypes and encourage equality. To Douglass, photography equaled freedom.
Late images of Douglass show him with long hair and beard, conveying a “self-made man.” Some of the last images of him were taken, not in a studio, but in his home in Washington, D.C., in 1893. He is viewed from behind as he sits at his desk with his dog lying next to him. It is rare, personal and informal record of a man who liked to be photographed in formal circumstances for a purpose. In fact, there are very few images of Douglass’s private life. He didn’t see the need to record moments for sentimental reasons like we do today. For instance, only one image exists from his honeymoon with second wife Helen Pitts in 1884.
The last photograph of Douglass on his deathbed. It is believed that the photo was taken on Feb. 21, 1895, the day after he died, at his home in Washington, probably by the artist who came to make his death mask.
The remaining sections of the book discuss the legacy of Douglass’s person, persona and likeness. They compare his portraits to widely disseminated engravings from which they were based and shows contemporary works of art, especially murals and sculptures, inspired by his images. In the book’s afterword, one of Douglass’s descendants writes that as a child, he would imagine his family’s portrait of Douglass coming to life and telling him to “do great things.”
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