Louis Agassiz: Full Face and Profile

Mol­ly Rogers
Pub­lished Jan. 18, 2012

One pho­to­graph might lie, but a group of pic­tures can’t.
—Mar­garet Bourke-White (1)

Two Views

There are two pho­tographs of the Swiss-born nat­u­ral­ist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agas­siz (1807–1873) that I have long wished to see pub­lished side by side. They are both vignettes, images masked by oval frames to con­cen­trate the viewer’s atten­tion upon the sub­ject. In one Agas­siz is pre­sent­ed full face and in the oth­er he is in pro­file. At first glance the pho­tographs appear to have been made on the same occa­sion, prod­ucts of a sin­gle stu­dio sit­ting: Agassiz’s cloth­ing appears iden­ti­cal and he even wears a sim­i­lar expres­sion, a smile vis­i­ble more in his eyes than the cor­ners of his mouth. Upon clos­er inspec­tion, how­ev­er, we can detect clues sug­gest­ing the two images were made years apart: in the pro­file view Agassiz’s hair reach­es his shoul­der and appears thin­ner, and his skin seems less smooth. This image has print­ed below it the year in which it was made: 1872. The oth­er pho­to­graph bears no date but is thought to have been made around 1859.(2)

My wish to see these two pho­tographs togeth­er is moti­vat­ed by the sig­nif­i­cance of the two pos­es, full face and pro­file. By jux­ta­pos­ing these por­traits of Agas­siz I am invok­ing oth­er images uti­liz­ing the two pos­es, anthro­po­log­i­cal illus­tra­tion. The sci­ence of Anthro­pol­o­gy stemmed from the inter­sec­tion of geo­graph­i­cal explo­ration, colo­nial­ism, and nat­ur­al sci­ence that reached its apoth­e­o­sis in the ear­ly decades of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Through­out the discipline’s devel­op­ment, anthro­pol­o­gists made, col­lect­ed, and shared images of peo­ple from non-Euro­pean cul­tures. These images were thought to reveal essen­tial truths about the per­son depict­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly to do with his or her racial “type.” The jux­ta­po­si­tion of frontal and pro­file views, deriv­ing from ear­li­er tech­niques of dis­play­ing and repro­duc­ing nat­ur­al spec­i­mens, was thought to pro­vide a near com­plete under­stand­ing of a specimen’s appear­ance.

In 1850, Agas­siz com­mis­sioned a group of anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs. These are daguerreo­types depict­ing enslaved men and women in frontal and pro­file views and they were intend­ed to sup­port a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry on the cause of racial diver­si­ty, a the­o­ry lat­er called poly­ge­n­e­sis. In the Unit­ed States the study of race, called Eth­nol­o­gy, tend­ed to focus on the ques­tion of how human beings had come to be so diverse.(3) Poly­ge­n­e­sis pro­posed that human beings of dif­fer­ent “racial types” did not share a com­mon ances­tor but were the prod­uct of mul­ti­ple creations—in oth­er words, there had not been one orig­i­nal pair, Adam and Eve, but one pair for each race of peo­ple (of which there were gen­er­al­ly thought to be five).(4) In March 1850, fol­low­ing a sci­en­tif­ic meet­ing at which he announced his sup­port of poly­ge­n­e­sis, Agas­siz trav­eled to Colum­bia, South Car­oli­na, to exam­ine men and women from local slave pop­u­la­tions. A local pho­tog­ra­ph­er lat­er pro­duced daguerreo­types of the peo­ple he exam­ined. The images, fif­teen of which are known, depict five African men and two African Amer­i­can women; each was anno­tat­ed with a hand­writ­ten label giv­ing the name of the per­son depict­ed, the African tribe to which he or she was appar­ent­ly relat­ed, and the name of his or her “own­er.” These are the ear­li­est known pho­tographs of iden­ti­fi­able Amer­i­can slaves and they are also among the ear­li­est anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs.(5)


The daguerreo­types made for Agas­siz share for­mal qual­i­ties with the professor’s own pho­tographs.(6) As well as hold­ing sim­i­lar pos­es, the sub­jects are care­ful­ly lit and the images are masked to focus our atten­tion upon them, which in the case of Renty’s photographs—reproduced here as exam­ples of the group—is accom­plished with a gilt frame.(7) There are also dif­fer­ences, the most obvi­ous of which is that while Agas­siz is smart­ly dressed, Renty’s cloth­ing has been pulled away from his body. Renty’s full-face view is also rigid­ly frontal, where­as Agas­siz is turned slight­ly to one side, his head look­ing just as sub­tly in the oth­er direc­tion, the com­bi­na­tion of which soft­ens the typ­i­cal­ly con­fronta­tion­al effect of the frontal pose. The dif­fer­ent pho­to­graph­ic process­es used for each set of images fur­ther con­tribute to qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ences between them.

There is, of course, anoth­er dif­fer­ence between the images, one that bears direct­ly upon the rea­sons they were made and the mean­ings that were found in them: the race of the peo­ple depict­ed. It is no acci­dent that Agas­siz, a Euro­pean, is depict­ed in a smart suit and wear­ing a Mona Lisa smile, where­as Ren­ty, born in Africa, is naked to the waist and was per­mit­ted no sub­tleties of pos­ture or facial expres­sion to con­vey aspects of his char­ac­ter. Agassiz’s full-face pho­to­graph is a carte-de-vis­ite, a vari­ety of pho­to­graph pop­u­lar after 1854, which, like a call­ing card, could be giv­en as a reminder of the social bond between friends or acquain­tances. His pro­file view was intend­ed to serve as the mod­el image for a com­mem­o­ra­tive medal pro­duced by the Swiss com­mu­ni­ty in which he lived and worked before set­tling in Amer­i­ca.(8) In marked con­trast to Agassiz’s pho­tographs, the images of Ren­ty were intend­ed as evi­dence for a racist sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry. On the one hand, we have images hon­or­ing a white man, and on the oth­er, pho­tographs intend­ed to stereo­type an African. The two sets of images could not be more dif­fer­ent.

In this essay I want to con­sid­er what the daguerreo­types of enslaved men and women may have meant to Agas­siz. Turn­ing the cam­era, so to speak, upon the Swiss-born nat­u­ral­ist, I want to explore his moti­va­tions for mak­ing images of enslaved men and women, the mean­ings he may have found in them, and also con­sid­er pos­si­ble rea­sons why he nev­er pub­lished them. To do this I will regard Agas­siz both as a type (the Nat­u­ral­ist) and as an indi­vid­ual, bring­ing togeth­er mul­ti­ple views of the pro­fes­sor, though by no means pre­sent­ing a com­plete pic­ture of the man. First, how­ev­er, I will briefly con­sid­er how images such as those of Agas­siz and Ren­ty oper­ate, how their mean­ing is bound up with the con­ven­tions of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry pho­tog­ra­phy.

Ear­ly Anthro­po­log­i­cal Pho­tographs

Putting the two por­traits of Agas­siz togeth­er is a con­trivance: unlike Renty’s pho­tographs, they were made years apart and for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, and real­ly have no busi­ness being side by side as if they belonged togeth­er. Nev­er­the­less, both sets of images coex­ist with­in the “dou­ble oper­a­tion” of pho­tog­ra­phy described by Allan Seku­la. The dou­ble oper­a­tion is made up on the one hand by the way a pho­to­graph­ic por­trait “extends, accel­er­ates, pop­u­lar­izes, and degrades a tra­di­tion­al function”—that is, the ven­er­a­tion of indi­vid­u­als. In oth­er words, a pho­to­graph is vul­gar in a way that a paint­ing nev­er could be. Much was made of the “demo­c­ra­t­ic” nature of pho­tog­ra­phy upon its intro­duc­tion in the 1840s, but with this acces­si­bil­i­ty and pop­u­lar­i­ty the pho­to­graph­ic por­trait can­not help but be a lit­tle bit déclassé. At the same time, Seku­la notes, “pho­to­graph­ic por­trai­ture began to … estab­lish and delim­it the ter­rain of the oth­er …”(9) Pho­tog­ra­phy, unlike paint­ing or oth­er, ear­li­er forms of repro­duc­tion, was valu­able in con­struct­ing social types, such as “the sci­en­tist” and “the slave.” Even as it under­mined the tra­di­tion­al func­tion of por­trai­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy could be used equal­ly for hon­or­ing or for repress­ing indi­vid­u­als.

The two images of Agas­siz and the daguerreo­types of Ren­ty thus oper­ate sim­i­lar­ly with­in this sys­tem: the cam­era regards both men equal­ly, depict­ing the appear­ance of each with objec­tive pre­ci­sion, yet Agas­siz is pre­sent­ed as social­ly supe­ri­or and Ren­ty as social­ly infe­ri­or. But as Seku­la makes clear it is not sim­ply the case that pho­to­graph­ic images oper­ate hon­orif­i­cal­ly or repres­sive­ly. Rather, they are linked togeth­er inas­much as each requires the exis­tence of the oth­er to make the typol­o­gy of social types pos­si­ble. In oth­er words, with­out the slave, there would be no mas­ter; with­out the spec­i­men, there would be no scientist—and the terms could just as eas­i­ly be reversed, for each needs the oth­er to con­firm its sta­tus. It is because of this dou­ble oper­a­tion, the mutu­al depen­den­cy of types, that bring­ing these sets of pho­tographs togeth­er is not a con­trivance after all. Indeed, the jux­ta­po­si­tion reveals a key to their mean­ing.

The dif­fer­ences between the two pairs of pho­tographs may be summed up in this way: the images of Agas­siz serve to ven­er­ate his social and pro­fes­sion­al sta­tus as a respect­ed sci­en­tist, where­as those of Ren­ty were intend­ed to delin­eate all that the nat­u­ral­ist is not—African, slave, sub­ject­ed body. The link between the two sets of images lies in the way these types con­sti­tute each oth­er with­in a par­tic­u­lar social sys­tem. Yet while this for­mu­la­tion is use­ful for exam­in­ing cer­tain appli­ca­tions of pho­tog­ra­phy in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, it sug­gests a sim­ple par­i­ty between the two kinds of images that was not nec­es­sar­i­ly under­stood at the time, and cer­tain­ly was not the case with the images under dis­cus­sion here. This impres­sion of par­i­ty, the sug­ges­tion that the images func­tion sim­i­lar­ly, equates both kinds of images with por­traits and in so doing obscures some of the ways in which ear­ly anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs actu­al­ly func­tioned.

Pho­to­graph­ic por­trai­ture may be a term applic­a­ble to all pho­tographs of iden­ti­fi­able peo­ple, how­ev­er it does not seem appro­pri­ate to call Renty’s daguerreo­type a por­trait because it was used repres­sive­ly. Fur­ther­more, his con­sent to be pho­tographed was not sought, due to his sta­tus as a slave, and the images were linked to the expe­ri­ence of inva­sive phys­i­cal exam­i­na­tions. These con­di­tions sure­ly pre­clude our call­ing his daguerreo­types por­traits. In addi­tion, as far as any­one in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry would have been con­cerned, Renty’s naked­ness and social sta­tus pre­vent­ed his images from fit­ting com­fort­ably with­in the genre of por­trai­ture. Undoubt­ed­ly, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of Renty’s and Agassiz’s pho­tographs with which this essay began would have caused a scan­dal in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. When Eth­nol­o­gists want­ed to com­pare races, they rep­re­sent­ed Cau­casians with images from antiq­ui­ty, Greek sculp­ture, and the like, thus sav­ing white peo­ple from the dis­grace of being ren­dered as a racial type.(10) This tac­tic under­scores the fun­da­men­tal con­cep­tu­al dif­fer­ence between por­traits and anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs that was under­stood at the time.

The daguerreo­types are there­fore not por­traits, but they are nev­er­the­less por­trait-like. The daguerreotypist’s visu­al vocab­u­lary, his pro­fes­sion­al per­cep­tions, beliefs, and the tools of his trade all dic­tat­ed his approach to pho­tograph­ing Ren­ty and the oth­er men and women such that the com­mis­sion was car­ried out no dif­fer­ent­ly from his oth­er work. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er had no alter­na­tive but to employ the same light­ing, fram­ing„ and stu­dio fur­ni­ture used for his oth­er clients. Like­wise, the result­ing images were sealed in the same pro­tec­tive cas­es made of tooled leather and red vel­vet that con­tained the por­traits of Columbia’s free cit­i­zens. Renty’s daguerreo­types thus dis­play some of the con­ven­tions that under­score indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and iden­ti­ty, even as they con­vey oppos­ing mean­ing with­in a typol­o­gy of humankind.

The daguerreo­types are per­haps more cor­rect­ly under­stood as sci­en­tif­ic objects. Yet here we have anoth­er prob­lem in that the use of pho­tog­ra­phy for anthro­po­log­i­cal pur­pos­es was still very new in 1850. To be con­sid­ered sci­en­tif­ic, an object must meet four cri­te­ria: it must pos­sess a cer­tain salience by which it could be appre­hend­ed as bear­ing sci­en­tif­ic mean­ing; it must emerge with­in a par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion­al con­text; it must sit with­in a broad field of mate­r­i­al sci­en­tif­ic cul­ture and prac­tice; and it must func­tion pro­duc­tive­ly as a sci­en­tif­ic tool.(11) Only after 1860 did Anthro­pol­o­gy emerge as an orga­nized sci­en­tif­ic enter­prise, one close­ly resem­bling the dis­ci­pline as it is prac­ticed today, and with­in this insti­tu­tion­al frame­work devel­op its own visu­al con­ven­tions.(12) Pri­or to 1860, both sci­en­tists and the gen­er­al pub­lic rec­og­nized Ethnology—precursor to Anthropology—as bear­ing sci­en­tif­ic mean­ing, but it was con­tro­ver­sial and lacked much of the for­mal­ized insti­tu­tion­al con­texts and prac­tices that would lat­er devel­op around Anthro­pol­o­gy. With­out an insti­tu­tion­al frame­work in which to work, Eth­nol­o­gists were ever mind­ful of their lack of sci­en­tif­ic legit­i­ma­cy, a prob­lem that pho­tog­ra­phy helped to rec­ti­fy. At the same time, Eth­nol­o­gists were iso­lat­ed and this made it dif­fi­cult for the dis­ci­pline to devel­op a coher­ent visu­al lan­guage. Con­se­quent­ly, anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs made in the decades before 1860 do not con­form to a sin­gle gener­ic type but rather evi­dence a wide range of visu­al con­ven­tions bor­rowed from numer­ous sources. This was par­tic­u­lar­ly the case in the Unit­ed States.(13) While geol­o­gists, astronomers, and oth­er groups of sci­en­tists quick­ly embraced the new medi­um, Amer­i­can Eth­nol­o­gists were slow to make use of pho­tog­ra­phy in their work. As a result, ear­ly anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs made in the Unit­ed States are both lim­it­ed in num­ber and lack­ing in for­mal coher­ence.(14)

In the absence of a frame­work in which the images could be under­stood exclu­sive­ly or even pri­mar­i­ly as sci­en­tif­ic objects, Renty’s daguerreo­types pos­sessed ambigu­ous mean­ing. Cer­tain­ly they resem­ble eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry anthro­po­log­i­cal draw­ings and lith­o­graphs employ­ing the con­ven­tions of frontal and pro­file views. For those peo­ple who under­stood these con­ven­tions, the daguerreo­types may have read­i­ly been under­stood as sci­en­tif­ic images. Yet at the same time the daguerreo­types also have much in com­mon with tra­di­tion­al por­trai­ture. Renty’s daguerreo­types are thus sim­i­lar to por­traits and at the same time could also func­tion as sci­en­tif­ic objects, but they did not do so explic­it­ly or nec­es­sar­i­ly. Their mean­ing in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry was ambigu­ous in a way that Agassiz’s por­traits were not.(15)

The mean­ing and util­i­ty of the daguerreo­types relied great­ly on the cir­cum­stances in which they were shown and the expe­ri­ence of indi­vid­ual view­ers. They could even poten­tial­ly func­tion in a man­ner exact­ly oppo­site of that which Agas­siz intend­ed. What one saw in the images had every­thing to do with who was look­ing and why. For this rea­son I want to spend the remain­der of this essay tak­ing a bio­graph­i­cal approach to the daguerreo­types, con­sid­er­ing them through the per­spec­tive of a par­tic­u­lar viewer—Agassiz—in order to explore how sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence plays a role in the pro­duc­tion of mean­ing.

The Sci­en­tist-Trav­el­er

As a young nat­u­ral­ist, Agas­siz had longed to lead a sci­en­tif­ic expe­di­tion in the man­ner of his men­tor, Alexan­der von Hum­boldt. Despite his many accom­plish­ments, he believed that only an expe­di­tion could con­firm his pro­fes­sion­al stand­ing and until he could sat­is­fy this ambi­tion, a chap­ter of his pro­fes­sion­al life was miss­ing.(16) His voy­age to the Unit­ed States in 1846 at first seemed to ful­fill this desire, as the New World was con­sid­ered an espe­cial­ly vast and wild con­ti­nent by Euro­peans. But from the day he arrived he had lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to lead a seri­ous expe­di­tion, and much of his time was claimed by high soci­ety and Amer­i­can sci­en­tists eager to make his acquain­tance. Agas­siz would have pre­ferred hik­ing across fron­tier ter­rain to attend­ing din­ners in his hon­or, but ini­tial­ly, at least, this was not pos­si­ble. He would even­tu­al­ly have his expe­di­tion, to Brazil in 1865, but until that time he pined for exot­ic lands.(17)

South Car­oli­na was exot­ic. The cli­mate, geol­o­gy, flo­ra, and fau­na were dif­fer­ent from that found else­where and there­fore wor­thy of study. The con­tin­ued exis­tence of slav­ery in the South also con­tributed to the exoti­cism of the place. Vis­i­tors from the North and from Europe who ven­tured to the south­ern states usu­al­ly made a point of pass­ing through South Car­oli­na, which had a rep­u­ta­tion as the exem­plar slave state. Not only had Charleston been the main port of entry in Amer­i­ca for slave ships until the Atlantic slave trade was brought to a halt in 1808, but South Car­oli­na was well known for tak­ing dras­tic mea­sures to safe­guard its insti­tu­tions, slav­ery first of all. The state was the first to assert its States’ Rights by nul­li­fy­ing trade tar­iffs passed by Con­gress in 1828 and it was lat­er the first to secede from the Union. That black peo­ple out­num­bered whites in many loca­tions only added to the exoti­cism of the South. “Looks more like a negro coun­try than like a coun­try set­tled by white peo­ple,” remarked one vis­i­tor to Charleston.(18)

For Agas­siz, the South was a coun­try with­in a coun­try, a place set apart by its pecu­liar nat­ur­al his­to­ry and “pecu­liar insti­tu­tion.” His first vis­it to South Car­oli­na was in 1847, the year fol­low­ing his arrival in Amer­i­ca. At the time he was, as his biog­ra­ph­er writes, “more than polite­ly curi­ous about the char­ac­ter of plan­ta­tion soci­ety; he walked through the fields, watch­ing the slaves at work, and observ­ing them care­ful­ly.”(19) In sub­se­quent years Agas­siz returned to South Car­oli­na reg­u­lar­ly, vis­it­ing the plan­ta­tions of sci­en­tif­ic col­leagues and tour­ing the coun­try­side around Charleston. His first vis­it to Colum­bia, how­ev­er, was not until 1850. In March of 1850 Agas­siz attend­ed a meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS) in Charleston and on the fourth day stood before the crowd to announce his sup­port for poly­ge­n­e­sis. Fol­low­ing the meet­ing he accept­ed an invi­ta­tion to vis­it Colum­bia, where, in addi­tion to pay­ing social calls and giv­ing lec­tures, he exam­ined Africans and their “coun­try-born” daugh­ters. It was a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to study such “spec­i­mens” and Agas­siz can­celed lucra­tive lec­ture dates in order to make the trip.(20)

The daguerreo­types of the enslaved men and women Agas­siz had exam­ined were, I sug­gest, a kind of sou­venir, a record or memen­to of a vari­ety of expe­ri­ence that could be called “sci­en­tif­ic tourism.” Geo­graph­i­cal explo­ration and sci­en­tif­ic research were sep­a­rate activ­i­ties that rein­forced each oth­er and togeth­er played a sig­nif­i­cant part in colo­nial expan­sion. Objects brought back from a for­eign land were not only sci­en­tif­ic spec­i­mens to be exam­ined in the com­fort of the lab­o­ra­to­ry; they were also proof that the dis­tant land exist­ed and proof that by virtue of his trav­els the sci­en­tist was legit­i­mate. So, too, did spec­i­mens con­firm the sta­tus of the sci­en­tist-trav­el­er as con­queror of oth­er places and oth­er peo­ples through the acqui­si­tion of knowl­edge. For the sci­en­tist-trav­el­er the sou­venir rep­re­sent­ed his posi­tion in the world as much as a site he had vis­it­ed.

The sou­venir is an unusu­al object, one invest­ed with an aura of actu­al­i­ty even as its mean­ing is con­struct­ed by ele­ments unre­lat­ed to the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence. The sou­venir is a visu­al record of a sin­gu­lar expe­ri­ence yet it is not evi­dence of what one saw; it does not encap­su­late the expe­ri­ence of an event but, rather, its mean­ing. This mean­ing is deter­mined prin­ci­pal­ly by what one expect­ed to see. There is a dual time frame oper­at­ing here, one cob­bled togeth­er as a par­tic­u­lar form of nar­ra­tive: the for­ward-look­ing time of expec­ta­tion cou­pled with the back­ward glance of nos­tal­gia to form a mem­o­ry trace relat­ed to but not actu­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence. The pho­to­graph, as an object of nos­tal­gia, par­tic­u­lar­ly lends itself to the role of sou­venir. A sou­venir pho­to­graph depict­ing the pyra­mids of Giza, for exam­ple, sig­ni­fies a site of meaning—the Egypt-ness of Egypt—more than an actu­al loca­tion. The sub­ject of the sou­venir pho­to­graph becomes impris­oned in an idea, forced to play a part imposed upon it.(21)

The daguerreo­types of slaves were sou­venirs of a vis­it to South Car­oli­na, but they were also sou­venirs of a par­tic­u­lar world­view and of one man’s career. Agas­siz engaged the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines and prac­tices of sci­ence with the goal of find­ing an over­ar­ch­ing “Plan of Cre­ation,” an epic nar­ra­tive of nature that revealed the mean­ing and pur­pose of God’s cre­ation. Every­thing had to fit into this all-encom­pass­ing world­view; no one spec­i­men or con­cept proved the gen­er­al the­o­ry but each part con­tributed to the over­all design. Con­se­quent­ly, Agas­siz always looked ahead to what he would find, his expec­ta­tions shaped by his ideas, and his every under­tak­ing led to the same conclusion—indeed, his inves­ti­ga­tions invari­ably sup­port­ed his the­o­ries regard­less of what he actu­al­ly found.(22) In Colum­bia Agas­siz sought evi­dence that would fit humans secure­ly into God’s plan like a jig­saw puz­zle piece. He sought the essence of racial difference—the African-ness of Africans—and this was pre­cise­ly what he found, not because it was there but because he was look­ing for it. The daguerreo­types of slaves did not prove the the­o­ry of poly­ge­n­e­sis, for it would take much more than a few pho­tographs to do this, espe­cial­ly giv­en the con­tro­ver­sial nature of the the­o­ry. Rather, they proved sci­ence itself by con­form­ing to—and there­fore appear­ing to confirm—Agassiz’s ideas. They also legit­imized his pro­fes­sion­al stand­ing inso­far as with­out the spec­i­men, there is no sci­en­tist.

The Fiancé

At the sci­en­tif­ic meet­ing in Charleston, Agas­siz had stood before the del­e­ga­tion and said that he wished “to cor­rect some mis-state­ments, or at least mis­ap­pre­hen­sions of his views, on the sub­ject of the Uni­ty of the Human Race.” Although in lec­tures giv­en ear­li­er both to north­ern and south­ern audi­ences he had touched on the sub­ject, his posi­tion was appar­ent­ly unclear and he felt the need to reassert his views pub­licly. Agas­siz announced that:

As a gen­er­al propo­si­tion he would side with those who main­tain the doc­trine of the uni­ty of the race, if by the uni­ty of the race be meant noth­ing more than that all mankind were endowed with one com­mon nature, intel­lec­tu­al and phys­i­cal, derived from the Cre­ator of all men, were under the same moral gov­ern­ment of the uni­verse, sus­tained sim­i­lar rela­tions to the Deity, and were alike appoint­ed to ret­ri­bu­tion and immor­tal­i­ty beyond the grave. Under these aspects, he was ready to main­tain the doc­trine of the uni­ty of the race. It was quite a dif­fer­ent ques­tion, whether the dif­fer­ent races were derived from the same com­mon human ances­tors. For his own part, after giv­ing to this ques­tion much con­sid­er­a­tion, he was ready to main­tain that the dif­fer­ent races of men were descend­ed from dif­fer­ent stocks, and he regard­ed this posi­tion as ful­ly sus­tained by divine rev­e­la­tion.

In short, Agas­siz stat­ed that the dif­fer­ences between the races were “prim­i­tive,” that they “did not orig­i­nate from a com­mon [cen­ter], nor from a sin­gle pair.” He did not explic­it­ly claim that men of dif­fer­ent races con­sti­tut­ed sep­a­rate species, though with­in a few months he would do just that; it was nev­er­the­less clear to the audi­ence that he advo­cat­ed orig­i­nal diversity—polygenesis—and not uni­ty.(23)

The court­room in which the meet­ing was held erupt­ed into chaos. Mem­bers of the cler­gy, incensed by the chal­lenge of poly­ge­n­e­sis to bib­li­cal doc­trine, attacked Agas­siz, caus­ing him to lat­er protest, “Why, there is no free­dom for a sci­en­tif­ic man in Amer­i­ca!”(24) Agas­siz had tried to fore­stall just such a mis­un­der­stand­ing by point­ing out that the Bible sup­port­ed his views, but to no avail. A live­ly dis­cus­sion ensued, one not record­ed by the asso­ci­a­tion because “the remarks at the close of the meet­ing were alto­geth­er too pop­u­lar a cast to require their print­ing.”(25) The news, how­ev­er, quick­ly spread. Mem­bers of the press had been invit­ed to the meet­ing to pub­li­cize the good work of America’s sci­en­tists and Agassiz’s wide­spread pop­u­lar­i­ty saw to it that his state­ment was report­ed.

Our read­ers will be star­tled, prob­a­bly, at the dec­la­ra­tion made by Pro­fes­sor Agas­siz, of his dis­be­lief in the uni­ty of the human race!” So began an edi­to­r­i­al in the Boston Dai­ly Evening Trav­eller, pub­lished short­ly after the AAAS meet­ing. The edi­tors then bold­ly artic­u­lat­ed the professor’s posi­tion: “He avowed his readi­ness to main­tain, in oppo­si­tion to the author­i­ty of Scrip­ture, that all the nations of the earth were not made of one blood, but that the dif­fer­ent races of men are descend­ed from dif­fer­ent stocks.” Read­ers were star­tled. The Trav­eller received numer­ous let­ters from read­ers who were clear­ly famil­iar with Agas­siz as a man of intel­li­gence and integri­ty, and who did not expect him to hold such views.(26)

Among those who read of Agassiz’s con­tro­ver­sial remarks was a young woman with more than a pass­ing inter­est in nat­ur­al his­to­ry. “I see,” Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary wrote to her fiancé, “that some of the church peo­ple are out upon you in the papers for your dis­re­spect to Adam as the com­mon father of mankind.”(27) Miss Cary and Pro­fes­sor Agas­siz had announced their engage­ment at the New Year.

Lizzie, as her friends and fam­i­ly called her, first set eyes upon Agas­siz in Octo­ber 1846, not long after he first arrived in Boston. It was in church—he was in the next pew. Lizzie’s moth­er, too, could not help but notice Agas­siz, and she quick­ly con­clud­ed he would make an excel­lent match for her daugh­ter. Yet, with the dis­cov­ery that the pro­fes­sor had a wife and three chil­dren in Switzer­land, the mat­ter was dropped.

Lizzie was from a close, cul­tured Boston fam­i­ly, one in which edu­ca­tion and the arts, com­merce, and per­haps, above all, man­ners were held in high regard. Descend­ed from good Eng­lish stock, both of her grand­fa­thers had held busi­ness inter­ests in the West Indies. Her pater­nal grand­fa­ther, Samuel Cary, had pros­pered as a sug­ar planter in Grenada—at least until 1791, when a series of slave upris­ings forced the fam­i­ly to flee to Mass­a­chu­setts. Thomas Han­dasyd Perkins, the more suc­cess­ful of Elizabeth’s grand­fa­thers, also had busi­ness in the West Indies: he owned a num­ber of ships that trans­port­ed sug­ar, cof­fee, and slaves to their respec­tive mar­kets. Both the Cary and Perkins fam­i­lies were “cot­ton whigs,” for whom slav­ery was thought a nec­es­sary part of life and com­merce, a fact that per­haps account­ed for Lizzie’s “rather tac­i­turn” response to the abo­li­tion­ist Charles Sum­n­er when he made ges­tures of courtship. By that time, how­ev­er, she had fall­en for the Swiss nat­u­ral­ist.(28)

Lizzie’s sis­ter was mar­ried to the Har­vard pro­fes­sor Cor­nelius Fel­ton, and it was at the Fel­ton house that Lizzie first met Agas­siz. Fel­ton and Agas­siz had become fast friends and often spent time togeth­er with the Cary sis­ters. Over the years this afford­ed Lizzie and Agas­siz an oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op a close rela­tion­ship, one unbur­dened by the expec­ta­tions of soci­ety but per­haps not with­out its frus­tra­tions. When Agassiz’s first wife, Cécile, died in 1848, the sit­u­a­tion changed. A year lat­er it was social­ly accept­able for Agas­siz to remar­ry and in Decem­ber 1849 Lizzie’s father gave his con­sent. The New Year in Boston was greet­ed joy­ous­ly with the news of their engage­ment.(29)

When in the spring of 1850 Agas­siz set off for the AAAS meet­ing in Charleston, it was the first time the two lovers had been apart since dis­cov­er­ing their deep affec­tion for one anoth­er. This sep­a­ra­tion mag­ni­fied the fears and anx­i­eties that new cou­ples often expe­ri­ence and Lizzie felt these intense­ly. The prob­lem, it seems, lay in stark dif­fer­ences of opin­ion between the two, par­tic­u­lar­ly, as she wrote to him, “about the sub­ject on which we have dif­fered so often.” The iden­ti­ty of this sub­ject is not known, for Lizzie did not wish “that the con­fi­dence between us should be shared by a third person”—with del­i­cate mat­ters, even writ­ing to a lover can some­times feel like a pub­lic dis­play. Yet while the sub­ject of their dis­agree­ment is not known for cer­tain, it is pos­si­ble that it was relat­ed to Agassiz’s “dis­re­spect to Adam as the com­mon father of mankind.”(30)

Since their engage­ment, Lizzie and Agas­siz had often dis­agreed, or, as she put it, “I have often been so unwill­ing to yield to your judg­ment.” This she part­ly ascribed to the awk­ward posi­tion of one betrothed but not yet mar­ried: to defer to a man who was not your hus­band sim­ply felt wrong. But she also made it clear to Agas­siz that she should be enti­tled to her own opin­ions, that indeed it was not pos­si­ble for them to always agree. “To have courage to express ful­ly my dif­fer­ence from you on any point, even to the utmost degree, and yet to let the deci­sion rest always with you, I am con­vinced is the only course which can sat­is­fy us both.” As his wife she would defer to him in all things, but she would still voice her opin­ion and have it be acknowl­edged. As she wrote to him while he was away in South Car­oli­na, “We have such oppo­site views on some essen­tial points, that it is not prob­a­ble we shall in all be able to agree, even after the most delib­er­ate dis­cus­sion. In such cas­es one must yield, and it is sure­ly from me that the con­ces­sion ought to come, for you have already seen how igno­rant I am of all that belongs to the life that is before me.”(31)

The life before her was that of a naturalist’s wife, a world-famous nat­u­ral­ist at that, and her igno­rance of sci­ence was then fair­ly absolute. Were their “oppos­ing views on some essen­tial points” to do with sci­ence? If so, it seems unlike­ly that Lizzie would have been both­ered by any of his the­o­ries oth­er than the the­o­ry of poly­ge­n­e­sis. This was the one area where some­one lack­ing in train­ing as a nat­u­ral­ist but raised under Chris­tian­i­ty could stand up and say, “I am unwill­ing to yield to your judge­ment.” No one, after all, wrote to the news­pa­pers to say they dis­agreed with the professor’s ideas on geol­o­gy or pale­on­tol­ogy, or even that his ideas on race were objec­tion­able inso­far as they were unfair­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry. The nerve that Agas­siz touched had to do with nei­ther sci­ence nor race, but reli­gion. Lizzie’s upbring­ing would not have pre­pared her to eas­i­ly sup­port a rad­i­cal new inter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible. Years lat­er she attend­ed a lec­ture Agas­siz gave “upon man,” which she called his “hea­then views.” Of this lec­ture she said, “I have nev­er heard him so elo­quent and so clear on that sub­ject, so I sup­pose the lis­ten­ers were as much pleased or dis­pleased, as they had expect­ed to be.” Her char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of his views as “hea­then” and the empha­sis on “dis­pleased” sug­gest that per­haps she, too, was dis­pleased with what she heard.(32)

The deep, mutu­al affec­tion that exist­ed between Lizzie and Agas­siz, how­ev­er, could enable them to set their dif­fer­ences aside. “I know that if there is any­thing not absolute­ly impor­tant, to which I can­not rec­on­cile myself,” she wrote to him, “you have too much ten­der­ness for me to urge it—and I trust too much to our mutu­al devo­tion, not to believe that there is noth­ing essen­tial to the hap­pi­ness of either which we shall not, in the end, win from each oth­er.” Lizzie added a caveat to this vision in which love con­quered all: “But let us only, so far as we under­stand it, bring our lives into accor­dance with God’s will, and pray always for his light and bless­ing on our way.”(33)

The wed­ding was due to take place upon Agassiz’s return from the AAAS meet­ing, yet it was delayed some­what as the pro­fes­sor changed his itin­er­ary. He had been invit­ed to trav­el to Colum­bia for the pur­pose of exam­in­ing Africans, and this was an oppor­tu­ni­ty he did not want to miss. If the sub­ject of their pre­mar­i­tal dis­agree­ment, their “oppo­site views on some essen­tial points,” had been his unortho­dox ideas on the cause of racial diver­si­ty, the mat­ter was nev­er again allud­ed to between them, at least not in writ­ing. Per­haps they sim­ply agreed to dis­agree, for the issue itself did not go away.

The Pro­fes­sor

Around the time of his wed­ding Agas­siz was busy lec­tur­ing and writ­ing on the sub­ject of human diver­si­ty. The press storm over his announce­ment in Charleston had served to bring the the­o­ry of mul­ti­ple cre­ations to wide­spread pub­lic atten­tion and he, per­son­al­ly, was under attack. His fame had made an old idea seem new, almost as if he had been the first to pro­pose it. “Agassiz’s the­o­ry,” as poly­ge­n­e­sis came to be known, was now a top­ic of gen­er­al dis­cus­sion and increas­ing­ly a nation­al con­tro­ver­sy.(34)

After his return from Charleston, Agas­siz wrote three arti­cles on the sub­ject of diver­si­ty in nature for which he drew on his expe­ri­ences in Colum­bia. The sec­ond arti­cle, pub­lished in July 1850, was devot­ed to the prob­lem of humans. There was not one homo­ge­neous “African type,” he wrote; this was a mis­con­cep­tion due to the col­or of their skin. “We gen­er­al­ly con­sid­er the Africans as one, because they are chiefly black.” Look clos­er and dif­fer­ences abound:

The negro of Sene­gal dif­fers as much from the negro of Con­go or of Guinea. The writer has of late devot­ed spe­cial atten­tion to this sub­ject, and has exam­ined close­ly many native Africans belong­ing to dif­fer­ent tribes, and has learned read­i­ly to dis­tin­guish their nations, with­out being told whence they came; and even when they attempt­ed to deceive him, he could deter­mine their ori­gin from their phys­i­cal fea­tures.(35)

The val­ue for Agas­siz of his new­found exper­tise was made clear in a sub­se­quent pub­li­ca­tion to which he con­tributed. Here he main­tained, “The dif­fer­ences between dis­tinct races [of human beings] are often greater than those dis­tin­guish­ing species of ani­mals from one anoth­er.” He then gave an exam­ple using two of the peo­ple pho­tographed, Fasse­na and Jack, though not by name: “The chim­panzee and goril­la do not dif­fer more from one anoth­er than the Mandin­go and the Guinea Negro: they togeth­er do not dif­fer more from the orang than the Malay or white man dif­fers from the Negro.” Dif­fer­ences among humans, Agas­siz main­tained, were sig­nif­i­cant, more so than dif­fer­ences between ani­mals belong­ing to sep­a­rate species. “Whether the nat­ur­al groups which can be rec­og­nized in the human fam­i­ly are called races, vari­eties, or species, is of no great impor­tance, as soon as it is under­stood that they present the extreme devel­op­ment of a pecu­liar diver­si­ty.”(36)

What Agas­siz had found sat­is­fy­ing about his exam­i­na­tions of Colum­bia slaves was not their col­lec­tive dif­fer­ence when com­pared to oth­er races, but the dif­fer­ences between the peo­ple he exam­ined. It was an idea he had long held to be true but now he could sup­port it with his own obser­va­tions. He also now had evidence—the daguerreotypes—to sup­port his claims.

While Agas­siz did not repro­duce the daguerreo­types with his eth­no­log­i­cal writ­ings, he did show them to mem­bers of the Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Club on Sep­tem­ber 27, 1850. Six Har­vard pro­fes­sors had found­ed the club in 1842, and it had since grown to a mem­ber­ship of fif­teen. Its pur­pose was to pro­vide mem­bers with a reg­u­lar oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss sub­jects thought suf­fi­cient­ly impor­tant that men of var­ied aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines should be famil­iar with them, includ­ing the prop­er­ties of elec­tri­cal fish, the dis­cov­ery of Nep­tune (then called Leverrier’s Plan­et), and assort­ed ques­tions in physics. Whether all mem­bers attend­ed the meet­ing on the night of Sep­tem­ber 27 is not known. No notes were kept and indeed it is not men­tioned at all in the club’s sur­viv­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, although giv­en the infor­mal­i­ty of the club’s activ­i­ties, this is per­haps not unusu­al.(37) The only indi­ca­tion that the meet­ing took place comes from the press, both in Boston and in South Car­oli­na, which report­ed on the event after the fact.

At the meet­ing of the Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Asso­ci­a­tion [sic] on Fri­day evening last,” the Boston Dai­ly Evening Trav­eller report­ed, “Pro­fes­sor Agas­siz deliv­ered a lec­ture upon the Uni­ty of the Human Race.” The Tri-Week­ly South Car­olin­ian was slight­ly more to the point: “We notice that Pro­fes­sor Agas­siz is still lec­tur­ing in Boston on the uni­ty of the human race.” Both news­pa­pers, how­ev­er, report­ed on Agassiz’s use of the daguerreo­types with pre­cise­ly the same lan­guage: “In the course of the lec­ture he point­ed out many dif­fer­ences between the forms of the negro and the white race, a large pro­por­tion of which have not been pre­vi­ous­ly remarked, and in proof of his state­ments he exhib­it­ed a large num­ber of daguerreo­types of indi­vid­u­als of var­i­ous races of negroes.”(38) Every­one present had seen a daguerreo­type before, but none had seen any like these.

As Agas­siz pro­nounced his ideas and referred to the pic­tures of Ren­ty, Fasse­na, and the oth­ers, he treat­ed the images as evi­dence, as if the proof of his ideas could be seen plain­ly in each pho­to­graph. But what did they actu­al­ly show? For Agas­siz they showed what he had seen in Colum­bia: they proved what he believed to be the truth about vari­a­tion among human beings. But did they do this for oth­er peo­ple? What did the daguerreo­types of slaves mean to the men who gath­ered togeth­er that night?

In speak­ing to the Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Club about “the negro of Con­go,” Agas­siz may have giv­en an eth­no­log­i­cal descrip­tion of Ren­ty to explain what he con­sid­ered to be his “spe­cif­ic” char­ac­ter. He then could have passed around the daguerreo­types to make what he said clear, point­ing out the anatom­i­cal fea­tures that for him sig­ni­fied “Con­go.” In this way he could do more than sim­ply describe Renty—he could share a par­tic­u­lar “vision” of the Con­go and its peo­ple with his audi­ence. No mea­sur­able sci­en­tif­ic data could be obtained from the images, but even so, in this con­text, the daguerreo­types could func­tion as sci­en­tif­ic objects. Agassiz’s sta­tus as an inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned nat­u­ral­ist, and thus his role as inter­preter of sci­en­tif­ic “evi­dence,” con­tributed to a frame­work in which sci­en­tif­ic mean­ing could be attached to the daguerreo­types. This mean­ing was not sta­ble; it did not derive from a close asso­ci­a­tion between pho­tog­ra­phy and anthro­po­log­i­cal sci­ence, nor did it arise from con­ven­tions specif­i­cal­ly born of inter­ests com­mon to both dis­ci­plines. Rather, it emerged from Agassiz’s author­i­ty as a sci­en­tist. The daguerreo­type thus func­tioned as evi­dence of a the­o­ry because the pro­fes­sor relat­ed it to a matrix of ideas and a tra­di­tion of sci­en­tif­ic edu­ca­tion.

But per­haps mem­bers of the club did not see what Agas­siz saw in the pho­tographs, for they did not have the ben­e­fit of hav­ing exam­ined Ren­ty in per­son. The mechan­i­cal pre­ci­sion of the daguerreo­type image could have mit­i­gat­ed this cir­cum­stance some­what. The “real­i­ty effect” of the pho­to­graph lends itself to the con­fla­tion of appear­ance with truth, and so when Agas­siz sought to link his ideas with the daguerreo­type images, his audi­ence could at least see Ren­ty in crisp and fine detail, and this would have facil­i­tat­ed the accep­tance of Agassiz’s ideas as truth­ful.(39) There were, how­ev­er, almost cer­tain­ly mem­bers of the club who did not agree with Agassiz’s the­o­ries. For those peo­ple the daguerreo­types were not evi­dence of the orig­i­nal diver­si­ty of human beings—they could not prove the the­o­ry because for them the the­o­ry was not true. What oth­er mean­ings might they there­fore have found in the pho­tographs?

A pho­to­graph can only ever show what some­thing looks like, what it resembles—there is no sig­nif­i­cance to an image unless the view­er has an under­stand­ing of its object, of what the image refers to, even if that knowl­edge comes from anoth­er image. A pho­to­graph can show some­thing “new” but the nov­el object must in some way relate to some­thing famil­iar, oth­er­wise it will not be “vis­i­ble.” The mean­ing of a pho­to­graph is there­fore not locat­ed in the image; mean­ing is con­tin­gent on the expe­ri­ence, knowl­edge, and beliefs a view­er brings to the act of look­ing. This after all is the def­i­n­i­tion of evidence—one thing that con­firms anoth­er. We look to pho­tographs to confirm—to prove—what we already believe to be true.

Although unusu­al, the daguerreo­types of slaves did not exist in a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al vac­u­um. They relat­ed visu­al­ly to oth­er kinds of images, but par­tic­u­lar­ly por­traits, as dis­cussed ear­li­er. Agas­siz com­mis­sioned his images from a com­mer­cial daguerreo­typ­ist and for this rea­son the daguerreo­types of slaves bear some resem­blance to typ­i­cal pho­to­graph­ic por­traits, images of white Amer­i­cans as well as African Amer­i­cans. The daguerreo­types were relat­ed to oth­er images, too. They were, for exam­ple, like the pic­tures of “white slaves,” meant to aid the abo­li­tion­ist cause by expos­ing race as a slip­pery con­cept and slav­ery as a dia­bol­i­cal prac­tice, though these images, too, are por­trait-like.(40) The naked­ness of the sub­jects also links the daguerreo­types with erot­ic and porno­graph­ic images. Whether one saw in Renty’s pho­to­graph evi­dence of racial infe­ri­or­i­ty or an indi­vid­ual forced to pose naked for the cam­era depend­ed large­ly on the view­er: the mean­ing of the images lay not in the light and dark tones of the photograph’s sur­face, but in the eyes of the behold­er.

A New Era

The daguerreo­types of slaves were com­plet­ed in mid-June 1850, pro­vid­ing too lit­tle time for repro­duc­tions to be includ­ed with the arti­cles Agas­siz pub­lished that year.(41) He was, how­ev­er, rumored to have been writ­ing “a book on the races,” which would have been just the place to pub­lish repro­duc­tions of the daguerreo­types. No such pub­li­ca­tion mate­ri­al­ized. Nor did Agas­siz pub­lish the images in an Eth­no­log­i­cal com­pendi­um, pub­lished in 1854, to which he con­tributed. Indeed, Agas­siz sub­se­quent­ly refrained from pay­ing the mat­ter par­tic­u­lar atten­tion, instead view­ing the conun­drum of human diver­si­ty as one piece of the great puz­zle involv­ing all cre­ation, rather than a prob­lem to be solved in iso­la­tion.(42) The images of Ren­ty and the oth­er peo­ple pho­tographed in 1850 were there­fore nev­er repro­duced in Agassiz’s life­time and indeed were “lost” until dis­cov­ered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy in 1976.

Why were the daguerreo­types nev­er pub­lished when the debates on human diver­si­ty were cur­rent? And why were they not col­lect­ed togeth­er with Agassiz’s oth­er anthro­po­log­i­cal photographs—why were they “lost” for so long?

Agas­siz was well known for his impetu­ous­ness. He would fre­quent­ly embark on a project only to aban­don it lat­er, hav­ing been dis­tract­ed by some oth­er, more inter­est­ing prospect, or because he was bur­dened with too many oblig­a­tions to ful­fill them all. It may sim­ply have been that Agas­siz was too busy with oth­er con­cerns and con­se­quent­ly the images were cast aside due to oth­er, more press­ing mat­ters. Per­haps for this rea­son they were put into a draw­er and for­got­ten.(43)

Here is anoth­er hypoth­e­sis: per­haps Agas­siz did not find in the daguerreo­types the proof that he orig­i­nal­ly sought in them. With anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tog­ra­phy not yet estab­lished, and with mem­bers of the pub­lic, col­leagues, and pos­si­bly even his new wife voic­ing oppo­si­tion to poly­ge­n­e­sis, per­haps the images did not in the end func­tion as they were sup­posed to. As the art his­to­ri­an E. H. Gom­brich not­ed, “The test of an image is not its life­like­ness, but its effi­ca­cy with­in a giv­en con­text of action.”(44) The mean­ing of the daguerreo­types was nei­ther obvi­ous nor sta­ble, but required an explana­to­ry nar­ra­tive for the intend­ed mean­ing to be appar­ent. They also relat­ed to oth­er kinds of images, and so when Agas­siz showed them at the sci­en­tif­ic club meet­ing he had to tell his audi­ence what they were see­ing, what it was exact­ly that the daguerreo­types proved. If a per­son did not agree with his views, then he or she would not see in them the same “evi­dence” Agas­siz claimed to see. For those peo­ple the daguerreo­types proved noth­ing sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, and so failed in their intend­ed pur­pose.

This fail­ure, how­ev­er, may not have been due entire­ly to dif­fer­ent opin­ions on the cause of human diver­si­ty, but also to the fact that the medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy, hav­ing close asso­ci­a­tions with por­trai­ture, rein­forced the indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter of the sit­ter and there­fore worked against the ethnologist’s pur­pose. Lat­er in the cen­tu­ry the anthro­pol­o­gist W. H. Wes­ley opined that pho­tog­ra­phy was not a suit­able medi­um for his work. “It does not appear prob­a­ble to me that pho­tog­ra­phy will ever super­sede draw­ing, for sci­en­tif­ic pur­pos­es,” he wrote. The prob­lem was “that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er ren­ders every minute detail with absolute­ly cer­tain fideli­ty.” This at first had been what made the daguerreo­type so high­ly prized, but absolute fideli­ty to nature did not aid the eth­nol­o­gist. The cam­era depict­ed what was actu­al­ly there, not what the sci­en­tist saw or want­ed to see.(45)

Con­sid­er also that Agas­siz had actu­al­ly met the men and women in the pho­tographs, he had spo­ken to Ren­ty, Delia, Jem, and the others—how could he not see them as indi­vid­u­als? Agas­siz want­ed types but the cam­era pro­duced indi­vid­u­als. Sit­ting there with the daguerreo­types laid out before him, he may have found that the human-shaped piece in the Plan of Cre­ation did not quite fit—not, at least, when it was also a pho­to­graph.


I began this essay by pair­ing two por­traits of Agas­siz with the daguerreo­types of Ren­ty in order to con­sid­er the con­nec­tion between these two sets of images apro­pos of photography’s “dou­ble oper­a­tion.” This dou­ble par­ing also served to raise the mat­ter of mean­ing and util­i­ty, and more specif­i­cal­ly the way the specter of por­trai­ture haunts the daguerreo­types’ intend­ed sci­en­tif­ic mean­ing, under­min­ing their func­tion as sci­en­tif­ic objects. To explore these ideas I have turned the cam­era on Agas­siz, so to speak, focus­ing on his pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al life in the peri­od when the daguerreo­types were made, for the pur­pose of bet­ter under­stand­ing how he may have relat­ed to them. They were, on the one hand, sou­venirs, proof not only of his excur­sion to Colum­bia for the pur­pose of exam­in­ing slaves, but also of his ideas on “God’s plan.” In this sense, and because they also showed “spec­i­mens,” objects of sci­en­tif­ic val­ue, they legit­imized Agassiz’s sta­tus as a nat­u­ral­ist. At the same time, the daguerreo­types may also have been sym­bols of his iso­la­tion inso­far as Agassiz’s views on human diver­si­ty caused him no end of trou­ble with the cler­gy, his col­leagues, the gen­er­al pub­lic, and pos­si­bly even his wife. Then there is the fact that pho­tographs, but espe­cial­ly ear­ly pho­tographs, did not par­tic­u­lar­ly lend them­selves to the Ethnologist’s project: in the absence of a frame­work in which the images could be under­stood exclu­sive­ly or even pri­mar­i­ly as sci­en­tif­ic objects, the images could be inter­pret­ed in diverse ways. To some­one who did not hold the the­o­ry of poly­ge­n­e­sis to be true, Renty’s daguerreo­type might have had more to say about the bar­bar­i­ty of slav­ery than the cause of human dif­fer­ence. Indeed, Agas­siz him­self may have come to hold this view, which could explain why the daguerreo­types were nev­er pub­lished in his life­time and instead were placed in a muse­um cab­i­net.

I hope that in the course of this essay I have also suc­ceed­ed in sug­gest­ing, although per­haps implic­it­ly, that just as Agassiz’s two pho­tographs do not in fact make a pair, the con­join­ing of Renty’s two daguerreo­types is no less con­trived. The link between Renty’s images is based on the idea that the two views togeth­er form a com­plete pic­ture and reveal some­thing “true” about him. Equal­ly, the two views were togeth­er thought to con­vey sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion about the diver­si­ty of human beings. Sci­en­tif­ic con­ven­tion dic­tat­ed that one image was not enough, but that two would pro­vide suf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion to make mean­ing self-evi­dent, to ren­der the image into proof. And yet while these dif­fer­ing yet relat­ed views of Ren­ty do pro­vide a kind of com­pos­ite pic­ture, the images fail to pro­vide the promised infor­ma­tion. The con­tem­po­rary sig­nif­i­cance of Renty’s two images leaves much unsaid and this, in turn, gives us much to con­sid­er.


In writ­ing this paper I ben­e­fit­ed from research car­ried out for my book on the Peabody Museum’s daguerreo­types of slaves (Delia’s Tears: Race, Sci­ence, and Pho­tog­ra­phy in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (New Haven and Lon­don: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010)), and so acknowl­edge the insti­tu­tions sup­port­ive of that work: the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty; the Library Com­pa­ny of Philadel­phia and the Penn­syl­va­nia His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety; the Insti­tute for South­ern Stud­ies, Uni­ver­si­ty of South Car­oli­na; and the Arts Coun­cil, Eng­land. I also thank Gre­go­ry Fried for invit­ing me to sub­mit this paper to the Mir­ror of Race project.

(1) From a New York Post arti­cle reprint­ed in James Agee and Walk­er Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, intro­duc­tion by Blake Mor­ri­son (1941; Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2006), 401.

(2) Both images were made by August Son­rel, a Swiss lith­o­g­ra­ph­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who fol­lowed Agas­siz to the Unit­ed States when the lat­ter emi­grat­ed in 1846. The pro­file of Agas­siz appears as the fron­tispiece of vol­ume 1 of Jules Mar­cou, Life, Let­ters, and Works of Louis Agas­siz (New York: MacMil­lan and Co., 1896). The full-face por­trait is a carte-de-vis­ite from my own col­lec­tion.

(3) I have used cap­i­tal let­ters when refer­ring to spe­cif­ic sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines (i.e., Anthro­pol­o­gy, Eth­nol­o­gy, Anthro­po­log­i­cal, Eth­no­log­i­cal), and low­er­case when using the terms more gen­er­al­ly (i.e., anthro­po­log­i­cal). Pho­tographs made by Eth­nol­o­gists as well as those made by Anthro­pol­o­gists may be anthro­po­log­i­cal (low­er­case) pho­tographs, while Anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs were only made from 1860 onwards, when the dis­ci­pline was for­mal­ized.

(4) Key Eth­no­log­i­cal texts include John Bach­man, The Doc­trine of the Uni­ty of the Human Race Exam­ined on the Prin­ci­ple of Sci­ence (Charleston, South Car­oli­na: C. Can­ning, 1850); Samuel George Mor­ton, Cra­nia aegyp­ti­a­ca, or; Obser­va­tions on Egypt­ian ethnog­ra­phy, derived from anato­my, his­to­ry, and the mon­u­ments (Philadel­phia: J. Pen­ning­ton, 1844), and Cra­nia Amer­i­cana; or, A com­par­a­tive view of the skulls of var­i­ous abo­rig­i­nal nations of North and South Amer­i­ca (Philadel­phia: J. Dob­son, 1839); Josi­ah C. Nott and George R. Glid­don, Types of Mankind; or, Eth­no­log­i­cal Research­es, illus­trat­ed by selec­tions from the inedit­ed papers of S. G. Mor­ton with con­tri­bu­tions from L. Agas­siz, W. Ush­er and H. S. Pat­ter­son (Philadel­phia: Lip­pin­cott and Gram­bo, 1854). Agas­siz him­self nev­er pub­lished a book on the sub­ject, but rather touched on dif­fer­ent aspects of nat­ur­al his­to­ry rel­e­vant to Eth­nol­o­gy through­out his work. See also William Stan­ton, The Leopard’s Spots: Sci­en­tif­ic Atti­tudes Toward Race in Amer­ica, 1815–59 (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1960).

(5) The daguerreo­types were dis­cov­ered in the attic of the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy in 1976. It is not known pre­cise­ly how the daguerreo­types came to be in the museum’s attic. Eli­nor Reich­lin, the museum’s chief cat­a­loguer, was first to con­duct research on the his­to­ry of the daguerreo­types, dis­cov­er­ing the Agas­siz con­nec­tion. See Eli­nor Reich­lin, “Faces of Slav­ery,” Amer­i­can Her­itage 4 (June 1977), 4–11, and the unpub­lished type­script “Sur­vivors of a Painful Epoch,” held in the museum’s acces­sion files for the daguerreo­types.

(6) Full-face view: Joseph T. Zealy, Ren­ty, quar­ter-plate daguerreo­type, 1850. Cour­tesy Pres­i­dent and Fel­lows of Har­vard Col­lege, Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, 35–5-10/53037. Pro­file view: Joseph T. Zealy, Ren­ty, Con­go, B. F. Tay­lor Esq., Colum­bia SC, quar­ter-plate daguerreo­type, 1850. Cour­tesy Pres­i­dent and Fel­lows of Har­vard Col­lege, Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, 35–5-10/53038.

(7) The gilt frame was also used to pro­tect the daguerreo­type by hold­ing a piece of glass in place over the image.

(8) Mar­cou, Life, Let­ters, and Works, 2:253.

(9) Allan Seku­la, “The Body and the Archive,” Octo­ber 39 (Win­ter 1986), 6–7.

(10) See for exam­ple the illus­tra­tions used through­out Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind.

(11) Lor­rain Das­ton, “The Com­ing into Being of Sci­en­tif­ic Objects,” intro­duc­tion to her edit­ed vol­ume Biogra­phies of Sci­en­tif­ic Objects (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2000), 1–14.

(12) For approach­es to the his­to­ry of Anthro­pol­o­gy, see George W. Stock­ing Jr., Race, Cul­ture, and Evo­lu­tion: Essays in the His­to­ry of Anthro­pol­o­gy (New York: Free Press, 1968) and Alan Barnard, His­to­ry and The­o­ry in Anthro­pol­o­gy (Cam­bridge, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000).

(13) Mat­ters were dif­fer­ent in France, where the work of daguerreo­typ­ist E. Thies­son caught the atten­tion of Antoine Ser­res, pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive anato­my and embry­ol­o­gy at the Jar­dines des Plantes and pres­i­dent of the Acad­e­my of Sci­ences. Ser­res was so struck by the sci­en­tif­ic poten­tial of Thiesson’s images of South Africans, blacks in Lis­bon, and natives of Sofala, Mozam­bique, that in 1845 he called for the estab­lish­ment of a muse­um of pho­tographs of the human race. In the 1850s, under his care, the project got under way. See Janet E. Buerg­er, French Daguerreo­types (Chica­go and Lon­don: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1989), 91.

(14) This is not to say that Amer­i­can Eth­nol­o­gists were unin­ter­est­ed in pho­tog­ra­phy. There was a desire to find new ways of illus­trat­ing the prin­ci­ples of Eth­nol­o­gy and pho­tog­ra­phy did fig­ure in this search. See Mol­ly Rogers, “The Slave Daguerreo­types of the Peabody Muse­um: Sci­en­tif­ic Mean­ing and Util­i­ty,” His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy 30, no. 1 (Spring 2006), 42.

(15) The absence of a tru­ly col­lec­tive sci­en­tif­ic enter­prise until the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry is key to under­stand­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of ear­ly anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs and how such images con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy as a for­mal dis­ci­pline. In their study of the emer­gence of objec­tiv­i­ty in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Lor­raine Das­ton and Peter Gal­i­son exam­ine the neces­si­ty of “col­lec­tive empiri­cism” for the accep­tance of nor­ma­tive images—that is, the need for sci­en­tists across con­ti­nents and gen­er­a­tions to agree upon com­mon objects of study, whether these are images, spec­i­mens, or prac­tices. More than sim­ply tools employed for the pur­pose of acquir­ing fur­ther knowl­edge, these objects help to shape sci­ence itself: by con­sti­tut­ing the field in which an indi­vid­ual inves­ti­ga­tor may make his or her dis­cov­er­ies, they help to define the broad­er epis­teme of a giv­en sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­pline, and in so doing make a virtue of objec­tiv­i­ty, there­by rein­forc­ing the val­ue of the meth­ods employed. Col­lec­tive empiri­cism is pre­cise­ly what char­ac­ter­ized Anthro­pol­o­gy from 1860 onwards, when sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods accom­mo­dat­ed the rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions of photography—most notably the inabil­i­ty to take mea­sure­ments from them and their resem­blance to por­traits. This adjust­ment helped to facil­i­tate the for­ma­tion of a cohe­sive dis­ci­pline, one that cham­pi­oned pro­fes­sion­al stan­dards and shared con­ven­tions. This essay con­sid­ers that peri­od before the advent of col­lec­tive empiri­cism when prac­tices were var­ied and stan­dards not yet agreed upon—when, indeed, anthro­pol­o­gists first encoun­tered the lim­i­ta­tions of pho­tog­ra­phy as a tool in their research. See Lor­raine Das­ton and Peter Gal­i­son, Objec­tiv­i­ty (New York: Zone, 2007).

(16) Edward Lurie, Louis Agas­siz: A Life in Sci­ence (Bal­ti­more: Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1988), 73.

(17) Agas­siz also over­saw the pro­duc­tion of anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs while in Brazil; these, too, are held by the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. For stud­ies of the Brazil­ian pho­tographs, see Gwyniera Isaac, “Louis Agassiz’s Pho­tographs in Brazil: Sep­a­rate Cre­ation,” His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy 21, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 3–11, and Hele­na P. T. Macha­do and Sasha Huber, (eds.), (T)races of Louis Agas­siz: Pho­tog­ra­phy, Body and Sci­ence, Yes­ter­day and Today (São Paulo: Capacete Entreten­i­men­tos, 2010).

(18) Quot­ed in David Robert­son, Den­mark Vesey: The Buried Sto­ry of America’s Largest Slave Rebel­lion and the Man Who Led It (New York: Ran­dom House, 1999), 18.

(19) Lurie, Louis Agas­siz, 143.

(20) Louis Agas­siz to John Fries Fraz­er, March 27, 1850, Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety.

(21) Susan Stew­art, On Long­ing: Nar­ra­tives of the Minia­ture, the Gigan­tic, the Sou­venir, the Col­lec­tion (Durham and Lon­don: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993), 138; Peter D. Osborne, Trav­el­ling Light: Pho­tog­ra­phy, Trav­el and Visu­al Cul­ture (Man­ches­ter and New York: Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000), 22.

(22) Lurie, Louis Agas­siz, 206. See also Isaac, “Louis Agassiz’s Pho­tographs in Brazil,” 6–7.

(23) Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Pro­ceed­ings of the Third Meet­ing, Held at Charleston, S. C., March 1850 (Charleston, 1850), 106–107; W., “Fifth Day’s Pro­ceed­ings of the Sci­en­tif­ic Asso­ci­a­tion at Charleston,” Boston Dai­ly Evening Trav­eller, March 25, 1850 (Charleston, 1850), 106–107.

(24) Louis Agas­siz, quot­ed in William Dal­lam Armes, ed., The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Joseph Le Con­te (New York: Apple­ton, 1903), 140.

(25) Alexan­der Bache to Lewis Gibbes, quot­ed in Stan­ton, The Leopard’s Spots, 154.

(26) “The Sci­en­tif­ic Meet­ing at Charleston, SC,” Boston Dai­ly Evening Trav­eller, March 25, 1850.

(27) Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary to Louis Agas­siz, undat­ed let­ter [March 1850?] (A.A26.1849–50.2), Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary Agas­siz Papers, Schlesinger Library, Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

(28) Louise Hall Tharp, Adven­tur­ous Alliance: The Sto­ry of the Agas­siz Fam­i­ly of Boston (Boston: Lit­tle, Brown, 1959), 16–18, 24–25, 40.

(29) Lurie, Louis Agas­siz, 153–160.

(30) Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary to Louis Agas­siz, undat­ed let­ter [March 1850?] (A.A26.1849–50.4), Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary Agas­siz Papers, Schlesinger Library, Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

(31) Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary to Louis Agas­siz, undat­ed let­ter [March 1850?] (A.A26.1849–50.6), Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary Agas­siz Papers, Schlesinger Library, Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

(32) Eliz­a­beth Cary Agas­siz to [Mrs. Thomas Cary?], April 15, 1851–2 [?], Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary Agas­siz Papers, Schlesinger Library, Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

(33) Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary to Louis Agas­siz, undat­ed let­ter [March 1850?] (A.A26.1849–50.6), Eliz­a­beth Cabot Cary Agas­siz Papers, Schlesinger Library, Rad­cliffe Insti­tute for Advanced Study, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

(34) John Tor­rey to Asa Gray, August 27, 1850, Asa Gray Papers, Archives of the Gray Herbar­i­um, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. Mon­cure Daniel Con­way, Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Mem­o­ries and Expe­ri­ences (Boston: Houghton, 1904), 1:88.

(35) Louis Agas­siz, “The Diver­si­ty of Ori­gin of the Human Races,” The Chris­t­ian Exam­in­er and Reli­gious Mis­cel­lany, vol. XLIX (July 1850), 125.

(36) Louis Agas­siz, “Sketch of the Nat­ur­al Provinces of the Ani­mal World and the Rela­tion to the Dif­fer­ent Types of Man,” in Nott and Glid­don, eds., Types of Mankind, lxxiv-lxxv. The val­ue of exam­in­ing the women is less obvi­ous, but is gen­er­al­ly under­stood to have been for the pur­pose of deter­min­ing whether being born on a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent affect­ed the indi­ca­tors of orig­i­nal type.

(37) Two weeks ear­li­er, on Sep­tem­ber 12, Agas­siz appar­ent­ly host­ed the group, though no sub­ject is record­ed, so it may be that this meet­ing had been post­poned. On the night pre­vi­ous, how­ev­er, the club was “With Dr Beck ”—this was Charles Beck, a pro­fes­sor of Latin—but again no sub­ject is not­ed, so pos­si­bly this meet­ing was moved back a day. Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Club, 1842–1985. Records of meet­ings. Type­script of Meet­ing Notes, 1842; Sep­tem­ber 1846–March 1909; Sub­jects of Papers Read at Meet­ings: Whose Papers and When They Were Read; Meet­ing Notes, Sep­tem­ber 10, 1846–April 28, 1859; Meet­ing Notes, March 14, 1867–April 23, 1868 (Mr. Lover­ing). HUD 3257 Box 1. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Archives. Cour­tesy of the Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Archives. See also Records of Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Club, 1842–1985. Gen­er­al infor­ma­tion about the Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Club. Notes on the his­to­ry of the club com­piled by Nathan Pusey, 1969. HUD 3257 Box 1. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Archives. Cour­tesy of the Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Archives.

(38) “The Uni­ty of the Human Race,” Boston Dai­ly Evening Trav­eller, Octo­ber 2, 1850; “Daguerreo­types and Anato­my,” Tri-Week­ly South Car­olin­ian, Octo­ber 10, 1850.

(39) David Green, “Veins of Resem­blance: Pho­tog­ra­phy and Eugen­ics,” Oxford Art Jour­nal 7, no. 2 (1985), 4.

(40)  “A White Slave from Vir­ginia,” Fred­er­ick Dou­glass’ Paper, March 9 and 16, 1855. Provin­cial Free­man, Toron­to, Cana­da, April 15, 1854.

(41) Robert W. Gibbes to Samuel G. Mor­ton, June 17, 1850, Mor­ton Papers, Library Com­pa­ny of Philadel­phia.

(42) Josi­ah C. Nott to Samuel G. Mor­ton, May 4, 1850, Mor­ton Papers, Library Com­pa­ny of Philadel­phia.

(43) Louis Rodolphe Agas­siz to Louis Agas­siz, Feb­ru­ary 21, 1828, in Eliz­a­beth Cary Agas­siz, Louis Agas­siz, His Life and Cor­re­spon­dence, two vols. (Boston, 1885), 1:65. Josi­ah C. Nott to Samuel George Mor­ton, May 4, 1850, Samuel George Mor­ton Papers, Library Com­pa­ny of Philadel­phia; Josi­ah C. Nott to Ephraim G. Squier, May 4, 1850, Ephraim G. Squier Papers, Library of Con­gress. Ann Shel­by Blum, Pic­tur­ing Nature: Amer­i­can Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Zoo­log­i­cal Illus­tra­tion (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993), 6–8.

(44) Agas­siz, “Sketch of the Nat­ur­al Provinces,” lxxiv-lxxv. E. H. Gom­brich in Blum, Pic­tur­ing Nature, 12.

(45) W. H. Wes­ley, “On the Iconog­ra­phy of the Skull,” Mem­oires Read Before the Anthro­po­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Lon­don 2 (1865/6), 193–194.