Elizabeth R. Varon is Langbourne M. Williams Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of “Appomattox: Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War.”
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, then forged a storied career as his era’s preeminent champion of emancipation and civil rights. In his long campaign against racial prejudice, he marshalled not only the power of words but also the power of visual images.
Douglass was photographed more than any other American of his era: 160 distinct images have survived (compared with 126 for Abraham Lincoln). In “Picturing Frederick Douglass,” we see that the photographic portraits of the abolitionist crusader had a distinct political purpose. Douglass intended for them to be powerful refutations of the pro-slavery creed, with its theories of race hierarchy and its venal stereotypes, and to demonstrate the equality, fitness for citizenship, variability and individuality of African Americans. By the late 1840s, Douglass the radical reformer had perfected a look of “artful defiance or majestic wrath” intended to shake viewers out of their moral complacency.
Douglass’s portraits were reproduced and widely disseminated in his day in the form of lithographs or engravings cut from the photographs. Professors John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier have produced a beautifully crafted and contextualized compendium of the extant photographs of Douglass, images that reflect Douglass’s passion for the emerging medium of photography and his conviction that the new technology could be a powerful tool for creating a truly democratic society.
In a superb epilogue, Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes that modern viewers cannot help but be astonished by the technical quality of the images. The large-format plate cameras of the day, with their long exposure times, produced portraits of extraordinary detail. Some of the photographs seem almost three-dimensional in their depth. Indeed, Douglass descendant Kenneth B. Morris Jr., who provides a moving afterward for the volume, recalls that as a boy he felt the Douglass portrait above the family mantel came to life and spoke to him, exhorting him in a booming baritone to “do great things.”
Part one of the book highlights 60 images, most of which have never before been published in their original form. They are arranged in chronological order and annotated, with information about the photographers who took them — and thus the images trace Douglass’s prodigious travels on the anti-slavery reform circuit and the arc of his growing authority and fame. After the Civil War, in his capacity as a distinguished statesman, Douglass favored more conventional three-quarter and profile portraits.
Part two, a short section on “contemporaneous artwork,” conjures up the contours of the “visual war” that Douglass, in solidarity with anti-slavery photographers, waged against racist caricatures. The lithographs, paintings, drawings and other renderings of Douglass’s image that circulated in his era lacked the accuracy and objectivity that the medium of photography could provide. Part three, on the “photographic legacy” of the 19th-century images, makes the case that Douglass won the visual war. We see how individual photographic plates have inspired a huge range of modern artworks, most notably sculptures and murals that locate Douglass among the great heroes of early American history and, since the 1960s, alongside modern icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X.
Douglass’s place in the social-justice pantheon is due primarily to his gifts as an orator and writer, and these are represented in “Picturing Frederick Douglass,” too, in the form of three previously unpublished speeches that the authors label, somewhat misleadingly, as Douglass’s “writings on photography.” The three speeches do celebrate the advent of photographs. But they do much more than that. Douglass meditates about the power of art, the capacity for picture-making and picture-appreciating that all humans share and that makes us distinct from the rest of creation. Even as he saw photography as a potential vessel for objectivity, he also acknowledged the pitfalls of the new technology: It could promote vanity and a conservative conformity to fixed images of ourselves. Douglass continually refashioned himself in photographs to transcend these limits, and he implicitly argued in these essays that technology is a force for good only if we use it in the right spirit.
The final section of “Picturing Frederick Douglass” presents, nine images per page, all 160 of the extant photographs. Together they illuminate American history and memory. In the context of the anti-slavery struggle, Douglass’s aim was to prove irrefutably that he was fully a man. Modern readers who bring to this book a reverence for Douglass as almost superhuman can find poignancy in the evidence that Douglass was just a man.
Some of the most affecting photographs are the rare ones taken outside of studio settings, such as the 1850 image of Douglass and some fellow abolitionists seated in an apple orchard in Cazenovia, N.Y. Here we glimpse, as if in a moment of time travel, Douglass alongside the men and women he worked with and inspired; there is no formality to hide the vulnerability of these reformers, who were in the throes of a seemingly unwinnable struggle. Even the posed solitary portraits convey some vulnerability: Like photographs of Lincoln during the Civil War, the portraits of Douglass invoke the profound burdens of leadership, an abiding spirit of humility and solemn intimations that even the greatest men and women are mortal.
By John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier
288 pp. $49.95