Culture Magazine

Frederick Douglass Was the Most Photographed Man in 19th Century America

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Tyler Cowen was a wide-ranging interview with Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and writer for The New Yorker. The whole thing is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this bit:
LEPORE: There’s this lovely series of lectures that Frederick Douglass gives in the 1860s. They have different titles, but one of them is called “Pictures in Progress.” Douglass, when he escaped from slavery, 1838, he was 20, the year before the daguerreotype comes to the United States. He sits for a daguerreotype in 1841, and he’s really transformed by what it is to see himself in a photograph.
In the 1860s, he writes all these essays about photography in which he argues that photography is the most democratic art. And he means portrait photography. And that no white man will ever make a true likeness of a black man because he’s been represented in caricature — the kind of runaway slave ad with the guy, the little figure, silhouette of the black figure carrying a sack. And, as historians have recently demonstrated, he’s the most photographed man in the 19th century. Douglass just makes a big commitment to being photographed.
COWEN: More than Lincoln?
LEPORE: Yeah, he is really obsessed with photography because what it means to have a black man represented is the kind of “I am a man” speech that you know from the 1960s, these kind of black protests, that slogan “I am a man. I’m not a caricature; I’m not less than a man.” And he writes this essay about photography, why it’s so important, and why it’s basically, although not a natively American art, is the sort of de facto American art form because even the poorest servant, even the poorest cook-maid, can afford a photograph of herself and of the people that she loves.
In previous ages, when it would be kings and bishops who were portrayed, that everybody can see themselves and can see one another and, therefore, we can understand our equality. He has this whole technologically deterministic argument about photography and progress, and it’s very much bound up in 19th-century fantasy, notions of progress. But it’s a little heartbreaking to read because that’s not what happens with photography, right?

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