Frederick Douglass: A Believer in the Social Power of Photography

Frederick Douglass (1818 1895), an influential figure in American history, escaped slavery and became a leading abolitionist, formative writer, stirring orator, statesman and photography theorist.


Douglass experienced the discovery of photography in 1839 and followed its development throughout the century. A visionary, he saw photography as a valuable form of communication rather than solely for artistic purposes. He believed the medium had the power to transform racist representations of Blacks in the U.S., such as in newspaper illustrations.

In a speech, “Pictures and Progress,” given in 1861, Douglass offered his belief that the advances of photography provided a “right vision,” which could challenge slavery.

Not only was he a theorist of photography but also began posing as a stately subject.

The recently published book, “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American,” reveals Douglass was photographed more than George Custer, Walt Whitman or even Abraham Lincoln.

The research of John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier resulted in a book featuring 160 photographs, many of which had never been publicly seen before. The authors reveal that during the four years of theCivil War, Douglass wrote more extensively on photography than any other American.

The book also includes contributions from Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a direct Douglass descendant.

Stauffer is a leading authority on antislavery, the Civil War era, social protest movements and photography. He is a Harvard University professor of English and American Literature, American Studies and African American Studies. One of his 19 books includes “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” which was published in 2008.

Stauffer discussed with DiversityInc on Thursday what he uncovered while conducting research.

Q. In his mission against racist caricatures of African Americans and promoting a positive perception, how did Frederick Douglass support anti-slavery photographers

A.Every photographer we know of who photographed Douglass was antislavery. Photographers then tended to be progressive or radical; they included Blacks and women at a time in which most professions excluded them.We also note that part of Douglass’s love of photography stemmed from his belief in the truth-value of the camera. Douglass believed that even in the hands of a racist white, the camera wouldn’t lie.But it’s also true that most photographers were antislavery, and many of Douglass’s photographers were radical abolitionists, from Ezra Greenleaf Weld and Benjamin Reimer to John White Hurn.

Q. After looking for photos of Douglass in European and American libraries, museums and government archives, to name a few places, were there any photos that surprised you

A. A lot of photos were surprises:Douglass with a ponytail, identifying Douglass in Gardner’s famous photo of the Second Inaugural, the deathbed photo, Douglass with a big smile, Douglass in the act of giving a speech at Tuskegee, Douglass with Helen Pitts and her sister Eva, the amazing photos of Douglass by Lydia Cadwell, the profile portrait of Douglass with his fists clenched and the full-length portrait of Douglass seated.

These are among the many photos of Douglass I had never seen before we began systematically scouring archives.Plus, I had no idea how widely or often Douglass’s portraits were disseminated via engravings cut from them in the press.

Unknown photographer, c. 1893. National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Q. How did you determine when the photos were taken

A.Many of the photos we were able to date exactly because we have records of his speaking itinerary, so many of these photos were taken while he was on the road speaking, and many venues were ones he went to only once or only every decade or so.

In some images the date came with the provenance of the image, and then to estimate dates for which we had not contextual information, we closely analyzed the photo next to others, blowing it up, looking at every detail, trying to determine his age. It helped that he changed his facial hair so frequently.And fortunately, many of the photos we were able to date exactly from the speaking itinerary (in which we had the place of the photographer’s studio).

Q. The technology of cell phones has allowed for constant photography. As Douglass was a theorist of the technology, in your opinion, would he think this diminishes the purpose of photography or enhances it

A. Douglass, I think, would have championed the use of cell phone photography as a tool for social reform.

Increasingly in America, for example, Blacks won’t leave home without a camera, usually on the cell phone, and police are thinking twice about questioning minorities, for fear of having the resulting film footage go viral.Douglass helps us [in] understanding this impulse; in fact, [he] anticipated it in his writings on photography and his portraiture.A camera, he recognized, captured a person’s essential humanity.

Unknown photographer, August 1884. “Niagara Falls, N.Y.” Albumen print. National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Q. Would he see photo sharing over social media as a method to perpetuate democracy

A. Douglass would definitely see photo-sharing over social media [as] an aspect of the medium’s democratic nature; he would have opposed “private” photos circulating in the public sphere (on social media), as he never sat for a photograph with his first wife or his three older children, based on extant images.

Q. As someone who already had vast knowledge of Douglass prior to research for this book, has encountering the new photos deepened your understanding of his cause

A. Very much so.It’s made me appreciate the intimate links between art (especially photography) on the one hand, and politics and reform on the other hand.Douglass was the first person to detail these intimate links. In my previous writing I called Douglass an artist and the abolition movement an artistic movement as much as a political movement, but this book has helped me appreciate these connections in entirely new ways.

Also, it’s been invaluable to SEE Douglass’s continual self-evolution, his ceaseless growth.

Ezra Greenleaf Weld, Aug. 22, 1850. Sixth-plate daguerreotype. J. Paul Getty Museum.

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