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Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery. The Civil War dismantled (for the most part) the treasonous Confederacy.
Yet Frederick Douglass inherently understood it would take more than words and war to grant African-Americans public register of their humanity. He had seen enough caricatures of blacks — their faces nose-deep in watermelons, or dangled above lakes as alligator bait. He despised drawings portraying his people with exaggerated features — slack-jawed expressions, or as giddy slaves. Such images, Douglass knew, reinforced white supremacy by presenting black people as simple-minded and subjugated.
In posing for dozens of portraits, he showed what black freedom and dignity looked like.
Douglass soon embraced a technological weapon to challenge his nation’s racism: photography. Long recognized as a great orator, Douglass used pointed rhetoric to rebuke slavery and promote freedom for African-Americans; in posing for dozens of portraits, he showed what black freedom and dignity looked like.
For the first time, nearly 100 of those images have been culled into a major exhibition, “Picturing Frederick Douglass: The Most Photographed American of the Nineteenth Century,” at Boston’s Museum of African American History. Co-curated by Harvard’s Dr. John Stauffer and Dr. Zoe Trodd of the University of Nottingham, this fascinating collection was inspired by their acclaimed book of the same name, with Celeste-Marie Bernier, also a University of Nottingham professor.
By the time of his death in 1895, Douglass was the most famous black man in the world. Still, the great abolitionist never sat for a portrait as a means of self-aggrandizement; always, he sought in these images something more indelible. Douglass believed photography “highlighted the essential humanity of its subjects,” as the authors state in their book’s introduction, which centuries of oppression had denied them.
The year-long MAAH exhibit, which runs through July 31, 2017, features dazzling interactive features with maps and graphics, yet nothing is as arresting as the Douglass photos. Entering the brightly lit second-floor room, one is almost overwhelmed by Douglass at every turn. This display features 50 years of Douglass photographs including his first, a daguerreotype, taken in 1841.
Then a revolutionary form, the daguerreotype was introduced in 1839, just a year after Douglass escaped from slavery. As the art of picture-taking grew, the well-traveled Douglass was often its willing subject — from Boston and New Bedford, to Chicago and Washington, D.C. Even in that first palm-sized photograph, Douglass seemed to fully understand the power of a single image. More than 150 years since it was taken, its ability to devastate has not been dulled.
Handsome and about 23, Douglass peers directly into the camera. His eyes blaze with fearless purpose and determination; he all but defies the viewer to look away. This, the photograph silently proclaims, is not a man to be trifled with. No mere runaway slave, Douglass is the face of freedom.
In every exhibition photo, some from newspapers or magazine covers, Douglass’s expression is nearly the same. He rarely averts his eyes from the lens, as was common in those days. He is always well dressed in sharp suits, his starched collars adorned with a natty tie. His hair is as regal and distinctive as a lion’s mane. More often than not, he is photographed alone, and he never smiles. (A notation states that in 160 photos taken of Douglass in his lifetime, he smiled only once.)
Through this image, Douglass emerged the new Negro: self-possessed and unafraid. There were other photos of black people at the time, but they reinforced ideas of subservience such as the cowed and broken slave, his back a mass of scars from the lick of an overseer’s whip. Here, instead, was Douglass, a man who reclaimed his stolen freedom, and would demand nothing less for every black man, woman and child.
Today, with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, we are likely living in the most photographed era in history. Yet the daily deluge of snapshots on social media hasn’t diluted the ability of photographs to provoke. That’s why many quickly denounce an old mugshot released as a first photo of someone killed by a police officer. Even if the dead man was unarmed, the circumstances of his shooting ambiguous, a mugshot brands him as possibly culpable for his own death. It endorses a poisonous narrative. If the dead man had legal issues in his past then he was a “thug” who must have deserved the gunshots that ended his life. A mugshot, and its implications, can unfairly suggest why an officer felt compelled to use deadly force.
Were he alive today, Douglass would have understood that, and would have been among the loudest voices to take issue. To him, a picture wasn’t worth 1,000 words; its potential impact was immeasurable. That’s the importance of “Picturing Frederick Douglass.” It emphasizes not just the documented life of a great man, but how images still shape and affect policy and public perception. In his writings and speeches, Douglass forced the nation to reckon with its racism. Yet, it was this photographic record that Douglass may have found his purest vessel of truth.