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Frederick Douglass and the Progress of Photography

Donna M. Wells

"A Very pleasing feature of our pictorial relations is the very easy terms upon which all may enjoy them. The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies and even royalty itself could not purchase fifty years ago. Formerly, the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great. But now, like education and a thousand other blessings brought to us by the advancing march of civilization, such pictures, are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society." Frederick Douglass, "Pictures and Progress" [speech], 1863.

     Frederick Douglass had the unique opportunity to experience the discovery of photography in 1839 and its further development in the nineteenth century as a formidable form of communication. Douglass was probably the most photographed African American of the nineteenth century. As a critic, and as a frequent subject of photographers and artists, he often commented on the portrayal of African Americans. He discovered early that photography had the power to redefine the often stereotypical African American image.

     In a speech titled "The Negro as Man," probably written in the mid-1850s, Douglass criticizes the way in which Blacks were portrayed by illustrators in popular newspapers like Harper's Weekly and in scientific studies of the world's races. "The Negro," he wrote, "is pictured with features distorted, lips exaggerated-forehead low and depressed-and the whole countenance made to harmonize with the popular idea of Negro ignorance, degradation and imbecility." While promoting the ability of the photograph to capture, what he terms the true likeness, Douglass' speeches, newspaper editorials, and correspondence also record his responses to the uses, and often abuses, by scientists and artists in their portrayal of African Americans.

     In 1848, Douglass reviewed Wilson Armistead's A Tribute for the Negro, which includes biographies and illustrated portraits of prominent individuals of African descent. The illustration of Douglass portrays him as a youthful, well-groomed, smiling young man. Douglass criticizes the drawing of himself, commenting that the expression was "much more kindly and amiable expression, than is generally thought to characterize the face of a fugitive slave." In other words, Douglass felt that portraiture should reflect a person's true character and experience. In comparison, the engraving used in Douglass' second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom [1850?] illustrates the control that Douglass sought to have over how he wished to be portrayed. The engraving, drawn from the earliest commercial photograph known as the daguerreotype, portrays Douglass as solemn, angry and somewhat defiant. What Armistead could not capture with pen and ink, Douglass made evident with the camera.

     In several lectures given by Douglass between 1861 and 1863, he is even more philosophical about the portrayal of African Americans. In this series of lectures, he praises the invention of photography as an equalizer, making portraits accessible across color and class lines. Douglass truly believed that photography could change negative opinions about African Americans.


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February 2000