The destination for history

How an escaped slave became the most photographed American of the 19th century


When the first form of photography, the daguerreotype, became available in 1839 photographic portraits quickly became the ‘killer app’ for the new medium. Despite the discomfort of standing deadly still for several minutes while the picture was taken and the high cost (about a day’s wages for a single image) people flocked to have themselves immortalised on tiny silver plates. 

One of the first people to understand the potential power of photographic images was a young African American named Frederick Douglass. He was born a slave in Maryland but escaped when he was about twenty and made his way to the Northern states. While attending an anti–slavery convention in 1841 he was moved to speak to the audience. Douglass had educated himself in secret while still a slave and turned out to be an exceptionally talented orator. His impromptu speech was so successful that the organisers invited him to be their state representative, and Douglass began touring around the country speaking against slavery.

From the outset Douglass recognised that photographic portraits could be deployed as a weapon in the battle against slavery. Specifically, he saw their potential to change the way the white population viewed black people, and how black people viewed themselves. To this end he had his own daguerreotype portrait taken at the first opportunity and continued to pose for pictures as often as he could as he toured around the country spreading the abolitionist message. His images were reproduced in newspaper reports and pamphlets, books and posters. He gave out copies of his picture at rallies and it was not uncommon to see his portrait hung in people’s homes and offices.

Photographs of Douglass typically show a handsome, elegant and intelligent man, immaculately dressed with head held high and holding an intense, perhaps defiant, expression. His images were devoid of the fussy backgrounds and props common at the time, and cropped close to emphasise his size and strength. He was almost always photographed alone. In later life, as his photographic and real life persona evolved from radical reformer to statesman, he assumed an appropriately patrician stance: typically sitting magisterially reclined with his shock of greying hair combed back from his serious face.

Douglass presented the public a novel image quite unlike the racist cartoon caricatures of African Americans familiar at the time. Douglass as portrayed in his photographs was not a curiosity or an object of pity, but a man presenting himself on his own terms, and on equal terms with the viewer. At a more subtle level the variety of images of Douglass, ever changing as he grew in stature and aged over time, demonstrated his individuality. In so doing they showed the American public his humanity. Seeing Douglass as an individual denied the possibility of categorising him, and by extension black people generally, as part of an homogenous ‘other’. His portraits offered a radical new perspective on what one commentator called ‘the Negro question’.

Douglass spent twenty years campaigning for abolition and became one of the most recognised men in the country. He wrote five bestselling autobiographies, launched his own newspaper, and met and was admired by several Presidents. At Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 the President said to the former slave, “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours”. His frequent public speaking engagements attracted huge crowds. In later life he held several high public offices and became a campaigner for women’s rights. It was after attending a meeting of the Women’s National Council in his late seventies that he died suddenly of a heart attack, in 1895.

There are at least 168 different photographic images of Douglass taken over his lifetime, more than were taken of such contemporary luminaries as Lincoln, General Custer or Walt Whitman. This makes him the most photographed American of the nineteenth century. Worldwide, only the British royal family surpassed Douglass in their appearances before the camera.

Douglass knew instinctively that changing the world we see changes how we see the world, and he used that insight to his advantage. His insight applies to much more than photographic images, however. It is one of many examples in the long, long history of seeing.

For more on the life of Frederick Douglass see his autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom; Escape from Slavery; Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. For more on the photographs and other images of Frederick Douglass see: Picturing Frederick Douglass (John Stauffer), which includes the full text of Douglass’s speech ‘Pictures and Progress’. Also see: Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith.

By Susan Denham Wade

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