Black as We Wanna Be

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2016-09-18 17:45Z by Steven

Black as We Wanna Be

The Nation
2016-09-15

Matthew McKnight, Assistant Literary Editor


Frederick Douglass, February 21, 1895. (National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, DC)

Stauffer, John, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (New York: Liveright, 2015)

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Brooklyn: Verso, 2012)

Trying to remedy racism on its own intellectual terrain is like trying to extinguish a fire by striking another match. The fiction must be unbelieved, the fire stamped out.

In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explored some questions about the ever-evolving technology of photography and what it does to us, particularly when it’s used to capture moments that would normally make us avert our eyes. “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order,” Sontag wrote, “are those who could do something to alleviate it—say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Sontag spends much of the book discussing war photography; scant pages mention images and cruelties closer to home.

In the modern American context, there remains perhaps no more insidious cruelty than the belief—constantly manipulated and reinforced—that race is a natural and constant thing, something that should have any bearing on how we choose to organize our society and our lives. And though the convergence of racism and the photographic impulse isn’t new, the recent pictures and videos of killings by police officers have given renewed life to the questions that Sontag explored—and those she didn’t. Indeed, these images raise fewer questions about the act of looking at them than about the ways in which we view ourselves.

To modern eyes, the photographic portraits of Frederick Douglass are not so remarkable. Douglass was almost always photographed seated, wearing a dark suit, alternately staring directly into the camera and looking off to one side. As he abided by the portrait conventions of the era, only his skin color would have made these portraits remarkable in Douglass’s own time. The real joy of Picturing Frederick Douglass (2015)—a collection of 60 portraits, taken between 1841 and 1895; his four speeches on his theory of photography; and a critical essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr.—is to study his constancy. The changes in Douglass’s facial expressions across all of the portraits are mostly imperceptible: He looks serious, defiant, and proud.

The final portrait of Douglass was taken on February 21, 1895. He’d died the day before. That image shows him lying on his bed in Washington, DC. It is mostly a spectral gray-white. His hair and beard, his clothes, the bed linens, and the wall in the background all appear to be about the same color. There’s a faint outline of his profile, and with his hands crossed over his abdomen, he looks as dignified as ever…

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Who’s the most photographed American man of the 19th Century? HINT: It’s not Lincoln…

Posted in Anthropology, Arts, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2016-03-31 00:35Z by Steven

Who’s the most photographed American man of the 19th Century? HINT: It’s not Lincoln…

The Washington Post
2016-03-15

Jennifer Beeson Gregory

Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass would become one of the most well-known abolitionists, orators, and writers of his time. He understood and heralded not only the power of the written or spoken word, but also the power of the visual image — especially, his own likeness. He therefore sat for portraits wherever and whenever he could. As a result, Douglass was photographed more than any other American of his era: 160 distinct images (mostly portraits) have survived, more than Abraham Lincoln at 126. Many of these rare, historically significant images are published for the first time in “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American,” by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier.

This book shows all 160 photos and delves into Douglass’s life and passions, including photography. In his writings, Douglass praises Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype, which made the developing process easier and cheaper, and in turn made photography available to the masses. By the mid-19th century, there were portrait studios all over the Northern United States. Almost everyone in a free state could afford to have their picture taken — even non-whites. Douglass therefore called photography a “democratic art.”…


Unknown Photographer, Honeymoon with Helen Pitts in Niagara Falls, N.Y., August 1884. Albumen print (Frederick Douglass National Historic Site/National Park Service)

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The many faces of Frederick Douglass

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2015-12-28 00:10Z by Steven

The many faces of Frederick Douglass

Democrat and Chronicle
Rochester, New York
2015-12-25

Jim Memmott, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
University of Rochester, Rochester, New York


Portrait of Frederick Douglass taken November 3, 1882 by John Howe Kent, 24 State Street, Rochester, New York
(Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries)

In November 1882, Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, orator, abolitionist, writer, lecturer, was back in Rochester, the city where he had lived for nearly 30 years, to give a talk.

Not surprisingly, he found time to visit the studio of Rochester photographer John Howe Kent to pose for a portrait.

The photograph, which is among the collection of the University of Rochester, shows a white-haired, bearded and contemplative Douglass. He looks away from the camera, his brow furrowed, his eyes on a distant prize.

According to the authors of a rich and rewarding book, the recently published Picturing Frederick Douglass, Kent’s picture became a lasting image of Douglass. It was used as the illustration facing the title page of the last edition of Douglass’s autobiography. And it was reproduced again and again on monuments, on a postage stamp and in drawings.

As the subtitle of Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American makes clear, the Rochester picture is just one of many of Douglass taken during a time when photography was coming of age.

The authors of the book, John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, have identified 160 separate photographs of Douglass, a handful taken in Rochester, and all republished in the book.

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Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American

Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-11-03 01:28Z by Steven

Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American

Liveright (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
November 2015
320 pages
9.4 Ă— 12.4 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-87140-468-8

John Stauffer, Professor of English, American studies, and African American Studies
Harvard University

Zoe Trodd, Professor of American Literature
Department of American and Canadian Studies
University of Nottingham

Celeste-Marie Bernier, Professor of African American Studies
Department of American and Canadian Studies
University of Nottingham

A landmark and collectible volume—beautifully produced in duotone—that canonizes Frederick Douglass through historic photography.

Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the ex-slave turned leading abolitionist, eloquent orator, and seminal writer whose fiery speeches transformed him into one of the most renowned and popular agitators of his age. Now, as a result of the groundbreaking research of John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Douglass emerges as a leading pioneer in photography, both as a stately subject and as a prescient theorist who believed in the explosive social power of what was then just a nascent art form.

Indeed, Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of Civil War, he wrote more extensively on the subject than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” by the war and wanted a speech only on “this mighty struggle.” He frequented photographers’ studios regularly and sat for his portrait whenever he could. To Douglass, photography was the great “democratic art” that would finally assert black humanity in place of the slave “thing” and at the same time counter the blackface minstrelsy caricatures that had come to define the public perception of what it meant to be black. As a result, his legacy is inseparable from his portrait gallery, which contains 160 separate photographs.

At last, all of these photographs have been collected into a single volume, giving us an incomparable visual biography of a man whose prophetic vision and creative genius knew no bounds. Chronologically arranged and generously captioned, from the first picture taken in around 1841 to the last in 1895, each of the images—many published here for the first time—emphasizes Douglass’s evolution as a man, artist, and leader. Also included are other representations of Douglass during his lifetime and after—such as paintings, statues, and satirical cartoons—as well as Douglass’s own writings on visual aesthetics, which have never before been transcribed from his own handwritten drafts.

The comprehensive introduction by the authors, along with headnotes for each section, an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and an afterword by Kenneth B. Morris, Jr.—a direct Douglass descendent—provide the definitive examination of Douglass’s intellectual, philosophical, and political relationships to aesthetics. Taken together, this landmark work canonizes Frederick Douglass through a form he appreciated the most: photography.

Featuring:

  • Contributions from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. (a direct Douglass descendent)
  • 160 separate photographs of Douglass—many of which have never been publicly seen and were long lost to history
  • A collection of contemporaneous artwork that shows how powerful Douglass’s photographic legacy remains today, over a century after his death
  • All Douglass’s previously unpublished writings and speeches on visual aesthetics
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