The camera has become a potent weapon in a new civil rights movement, as people capture police misconduct. But the link between photography and civil rights isn’t new. It dates back to Frederick Douglass, the famous former slave, abolitionist orator and writer and postwar statesman.
Douglass was in love with photography. He wrote more extensively on the medium than any peer. He frequented photographers’ studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could. He became the most photographed American in the 19th century.
Douglass considered photography the most democratic of arts, a crucial aid in the quest to end slavery and achieve civil rights. With Louis Daguerre’s invention of the form of photography known to us as the daguerreotype, “the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago,” Douglass said. Photography dignified the poorest of the poor; it was a potent equalizer.
Douglass first sat for his “likeness,” as daguerreotypes were often called, around 1841, at the beginning of his public career. By the decade’s end, he was famous at the very time photography had become popular. There were photographic studios in every city, county, and territory in the free states. Engravings, cut from these photographs, circulated as illustrations in best-selling books, including Douglass’.
The more rural southern slave states, however, were slower to embrace the medium. Defensive about slavery, white Southerners seemed to tacitly agree that there was much about their society best left un-illustrated. Photographic portraits bore witness to blacks’ essential humanity, countering the racist caricatures evident in lithographs and engravings.
Douglass’ portraits and words sent a message to the world that he had as much claim to citizenship, with the rights of equality before the law, as his white peers. This is why he always dressed up for the photographer, appearing “majestic in his wrath,” as one admirer said of a portrait from 1852.
The sheer number of Douglass portraits—160 separate poses, reproduced millions of times—conveys not only his faith in photography, but his understanding of the public identity he was crafting. Photographers sought Douglass out and loved working with him. One friend boasted that she “owned more than 20 pictures of him,” and described how “the photographers are running after him to sit for them.”
Douglass would have been a savvy social media devotee, as he continually updated his public persona. By doing so, he was defying the static foundations of both slavery and racism, which are predicated on the idea that some people of a certain race are somehow immutably inferior to others. Douglass’ fluid conception of the self united art and politics. He went so far as to say that “the moral and social influence of pictures” was more important in shaping national culture than “the making of its laws.”
His portraits evolved over the years from revolutionary freedom fighter to elder statesman. The most noticeable visual marker of his continual evolution is his facial hair and hairstyles. While 19th-century men experimented with hirsute faces, few did so as frequently as Douglass. He tracked, and often led, the prevailing fashion.
Nowadays, his portraits serve as an important visual legacy. Douglass was astute in his awareness of the potential of photography to change society, and so it’s fitting that this great American’s “likeness” has fought on for his worthy causes long after the man himself had passed on.
John Stauffer is a professor of English and African and African-American Studies at Harvard and the author of the prize-winning “Black Hearts of Men.” His new book, co-authored with Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, is “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the 19th Century’s Most Photographed American.”