Nineteenth-Century Scientific Travel and Racial Photography: The Formation of Louis Agassiz’s Brazilian Collection

By Maria Hele­na P. T. Macha­do
Pub­lished May 8, 2012

Louis Agas­siz Pho­to­graph­ic Col­lec­tion. Pure Race Series. Africa Album. Soma­to­log­i­cal trip­tych, iden­ti­fied as Mina Aouni. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Augus­to Stahl. Rio de Janeiro, 1865. Cour­tesy of the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.
Louis Agas­siz Pho­to­graph­ic Col­lec­tion. Mixed Race Series. Phreno­log­i­cal por­trait, uniden­ti­fied woman. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Wal­ter Hun­newell. Man­aus, 1865–1866. Cour­tesy of the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

The pho­to­graph­ic col­lec­tion cre­at­ed by Louis Agas­siz dur­ing the Thay­er Expe­di­tion to Brazil in 1865–66 com­pris­es a valu­able visu­al record that sheds impor­tant light not only on the his­to­ry of anthro­pol­o­gy but also on nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry stud­ies on race.(1) With near­ly two hun­dred images and housed in the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, this col­lec­tion remains for the most part unpub­lished to this day. Sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle known, these pho­tographs rep­re­sent one of the most exten­sive sets of pic­tures por­tray­ing the diver­si­ty of the Brazil­ian pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Agassiz’s Brazil­ian col­lec­tion should not be con­sid­ered sim­ply a less­er by-prod­uct of a larg­er sci­en­tif­ic expe­di­tion orga­nized around the prin­ci­ples of the jour­neys under­tak­en by nat­u­ral­ists in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Much to the con­trary, Agas­siz sought con­scious­ly to repro­duce on a larg­er scale the famous daguerreo­type col­lec­tion that he com­mis­sioned (and which pho­tog­ra­ph­er Joseph T. Zealy exe­cut­ed) in South Car­oli­na in the 1850s. Agassiz’s broad­er plan was to estab­lish a visu­al archive of all the racial types on earth, with spe­cial atten­tion to blacks and their mixed descen­dants. This plan grew out of Agassiz’s deep com­mit­ment to defend­ing cre­ation­ism and poly­genism, at the same time as he opposed “hybridism” with­in the Amer­i­can con­text dur­ing the years pre­ced­ing and imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the Civ­il War (1861–1865). As one of the lead­ing ide­o­logues of seg­re­ga­tion, which was to devel­op more ful­ly in the post­bel­lum years, Agas­siz demon­strat­ed that his com­mit­ment to racial the­o­ries that defend­ed the sep­a­ra­tion of races and the ward­ship or depor­ta­tion of Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions of African descent was not a spur-of-the-moment opin­ion. In effect, it reflect­ed con­vic­tions that had devel­oped over the course of his sci­en­tif­ic career.

The Science of Race: Creationism, Polygenism, and Hybridism

Along­side his stud­ies of aquat­ic fau­na and geol­o­gy, as a nat­ur­al sci­en­tist Agas­siz was also con­cerned with the study of human races.(2) From the time he first arrived in the Unit­ed States in the mid-1840s, the Swiss sci­en­tist was engaged in the debate over race, ini­tial­ly tak­ing sides with the poly­genists (that is, those who believed that humankind was not one, but rather was formed out of sep­a­rate species involv­ing more than one divine cre­ation), and lat­er embrac­ing a the­o­ry of degen­er­a­tion, which held that mixed races did not car­ry the best char­ac­ter­is­tics of their fore­bears, but rather that mis­ce­gena­tion result­ed in degen­er­a­tion and infer­til­i­ty. It is impor­tant to bear in mind that Agas­siz became involved in the race debate in the Amer­i­can con­text, where he defend­ed both abo­li­tion and racial seg­re­ga­tion. His arrival in Brazil with the Thay­er Expe­di­tion coin­cid­ed with the final episodes of the Civ­il War, when con­cern about the future role of per­sons of African descent in Amer­i­can soci­ety was a burn­ing issue.

Begin­ning in 1850, Agas­siz spent time in south­ern cities of the Unit­ed States, giv­ing pub­lic lec­tures on the ori­gins of life and of the human races. In direct con­tact with racial­ist and poly­genist thinkers, Agas­siz took deci­sive steps to com­plete his the­o­ry by includ­ing mankind or the “human species” in his zoo­log­i­cal scheme. As a defend­er of cre­ation­ism, Agas­siz con­sid­ered poly­genism as sim­ply one more nec­es­sary step toward com­plet­ing the jig­saw puz­zle of the mys­tery of the ori­gins of life. His hypothe­ses, implic­it in which was the idea of a sta­t­ic nat­ur­al world, allowed for the inclu­sion of mankind in the zoo­log­i­cal panora­ma as a sort of log­i­cal cul­mi­na­tion.

From this per­spec­tive, Agas­siz pos­tu­lat­ed the exis­tence of a nat­ur­al hier­ar­chy among crea­tures, not only between ani­mals and humans, but also between dif­fer­ent human races, and con­clud­ed that this emanat­ed from a supe­ri­or will, express­ing divine intent to estab­lish order in the world. Man sim­ply had to under­stand and accept this. Blacks had been cre­at­ed by God express­ly to inhab­it the world’s trop­i­cal zones and were mem­bers of an infe­ri­or human species, whose great­est attribute lay in their phys­i­cal strength and their capac­i­ty for serv­ing oth­ers. In face of a supe­ri­or human race—whites—blacks nat­u­ral­ly react­ed by abdi­cat­ing their auton­o­my in exchange for the secu­ri­ty that the com­mand and pro­tec­tion of the whites afford­ed them. It should be not­ed that these ideas were shared by pro­po­nents of slav­ery and abo­li­tion­ists alike. Louis Agas­siz him­self, although a staunch sup­port­er of seg­re­ga­tion, always remained firm in his abo­li­tion­ist con­vic­tions. How­ev­er, his ideas served the inter­ests of many who defend­ed the insti­tu­tion in the south­ern Unit­ed States.(3)

Agas­siz com­plet­ed his cre­ation­ist and poly­genist argu­ment with a fierce con­dem­na­tion of race mix­ture or hybridism. The ques­tion asked by cre­ation­ists and those who defend­ed the idea of zoo­log­i­cal provinces was, if God had cre­at­ed the flo­ra, fau­na, and man in pre­cise eco­log­i­cal nich­es, what right did man him­self have to go against this design, by mix­ing cli­mates and races and mak­ing them inter­act? For some of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry abo­li­tion­ists and racial­ist thinkers, espe­cial­ly in the Unit­ed States, if the harm caused by the dis­lo­ca­tion of Africans was sig­nif­i­cant, a greater error loomed on the hori­zon of the post-abo­li­tion world, this being the prospect known as hybridism or mulat­to­ism. In 1863, in his efforts to describe the hor­rors of mix­ing races, abo­li­tion­ist Samuel Howe intro­duced the image of a crys­tal-clear lake in which the addi­tion of one sin­gle drop of col­or, although remain­ing invis­i­ble, would cause irrepara­ble con­t­a­m­i­na­tion.(4) Thus, racial ide­o­logues thought that the best solu­tion was to free the whites, that is, to free them of the pres­ence of blacks, who would be sent off to trop­i­cal lands, where they would once again inhab­it the places that God had des­ig­nat­ed for them from the begin­ning of time.

Agassiz’s first pub­lic defense of poly­genism took place in a lec­ture deliv­ered to the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, in Charleston, South Car­oli­na, in 1850. Dur­ing that same trip, Agas­siz received an invi­ta­tion from Robert Gibbes, an intel­lec­tu­al well respect­ed in South­ern cir­cles and a mem­ber of one of the great slave­hold­ing fam­i­lies in the region, to vis­it some of the great plan­ta­tions as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to observe and doc­u­ment “pure races” from Africa, which could be com­pared to oth­er races. Although it remains unclear how Agas­siz came to see pho­tog­ra­phy as a means of achiev­ing his goals, his ini­tia­tive had a pio­neer­ing char­ac­ter. Indeed, in his tour of the plan­ta­tions, Agas­siz took delight in exam­in­ing the bod­ies of real Africans and select­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Ebo, Foulah, Gul­lah, Guinea, Coro­man­tee, Man­dri­go, and Con­go peo­ples to be pho­tographed by Joseph T. Zealy, a pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a stu­dio in Colum­bia, South Car­oli­na. At that time, Zealy pro­duced fif­teen daguerreo­types that cap­tured the like­ness­es of Alfred, Jem, Jack and his daugh­ter Drana, Fasse­na, Ren­ty and his daugh­ter Delia, all slaves, por­tray­ing them either in nude, full body, fixed pos­es (front, back, and pro­file) or semi­nude tor­so, as in Renty’s case.(5)

The South Carolina Photographic Collection and Racial Ideas

It seems that the first nat­ur­al sci­en­tist to come up with the idea of pho­tograph­ing a mem­ber of the infe­ri­or races for the pur­pose of cor­po­ral analy­sis was Samuel Mor­ton, who, in 1848, dur­ing the annu­al meet­ing of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences in Philadel­phia, exam­ined a Khoisan youth named Hen­ry, lat­er order­ing his pic­ture to be tak­en in pro­file, thus cre­at­ing the first known phreno­log­i­cal pho­to­graph.(6) Some­time lat­er, Mor­ton gave Henry’s por­trait to Louis Agas­siz as a gift. Agassiz’s own project result­ed in the pro­duc­tion of a com­plete­ly new type of visu­al doc­u­men­ta­tion, which was intend­ed to cre­ate a series of pic­to­r­i­al records that could serve com­par­a­tive pur­pos­es. Con­cep­tu­al­ly, he pro­posed what Alan Seku­la has described as one of the most promi­nent fea­tures of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry pho­tog­ra­phy, which was the cre­ation of an “imag­i­nary archive” in which all liv­ing beings could be clas­si­fied and ordered on a hier­ar­chi­cal scale.(7)

At the same time, the South Car­oli­na col­lec­tion fol­lowed a nat­ur­al-sci­ence method, inso­far as it con­sti­tut­ed a group of images for the pur­pose of com­par­i­son. Thus, in assem­bling this first series of anthro­po­log­i­cal pho­tographs, Agassiz’s chief aim lay not only in the com­par­i­son of black bod­ies and pro­files with an imag­i­nary visu­al archive of whites or Cau­casians, although that was also of inter­est to him. Indeed, he went so far as to insert post­cards of Greek stat­ues (such as the Apol­lo Belvedere) in his Brazil­ian col­lec­tion, intend­ing to con­trast the pur­port­ed­ly brutish fea­tures of Africans and mes­ti­zos with the del­i­cate Greek phys­iog­no­my, the lat­ter held by Euro­pean artists and phys­iog­n­o­mists since the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to be the paragon of human beau­ty and per­fec­tion.(8)

Louis Agas­siz Pho­to­graph­ic Col­lec­tion. Pure Race Series. Carte-de-vis­ite, Apol­lo vom Belvedere. Cour­tesy of the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

Not unlike his ichthy­olog­ic and geo­log­i­cal stud­ies, in which Agas­siz estab­lished stan­dards through the com­par­isons of dif­fer­ent class­es of objects and beings, his objec­tive in form­ing the pho­to­graph­ic series was to com­pile a visu­al archive allow­ing for the inter­com­par­i­son of Africans and mes­ti­zos. Accord­ing to Lewis Gibbes, the cel­e­brat­ed nat­u­ral­ist and physi­cian who host­ed Agas­siz on his tour of South Car­oli­na plan­ta­tions, among the pre­req­ui­sites expect­ed of nat­u­ral­ists was the skill of “read­ing bod­ies,” some­thing that dis­tin­guished these “learned men” from com­mon peo­ple, plac­ing them in a select group that not only could see but could also effec­tive­ly observe.(9)

Agassiz’s pio­neer­ing ini­tia­tive in con­sti­tut­ing a pho­to­graph­ic series of soma­to­log­i­cal and phreno­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions served as a mod­el for anthro­pol­o­gists and nat­ur­al sci­en­tists, with this pro­ce­dure being repro­duced exhaus­tive­ly through­out the world in the decades that fol­lowed. Anoth­er impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tic was the fact that Agas­siz express­ly chose Africans as pho­to­graph­ic mod­els, thus inau­gu­rat­ing a mode of rep­re­sent­ing the African oth­er, which was also to be emu­lat­ed in sub­se­quent years and whose results were to find a place in the anthro­po­log­i­cal muse­ums that began to emerge in Europe and the Unit­ed States.(10) He was to adopt the same approach in Rio de Janeiro in the 1860s, when cre­at­ing his “pure race” series of Africans.

The abo­li­tion of the Atlantic slave trade and of slav­ery pro­vid­ed a con­text for tex­tu­al and visu­al clas­si­fi­ca­tions of humankind in terms of racial hier­ar­chies, based on the notion of fixed racial dif­fer­ences, both intrin­sic and extrin­sic. This knowl­edge rein­scribed the old reper­to­ry of dis­tinc­tions estab­lished by slave traders and plan­ta­tion own­ers in the light of con­tem­po­rary sci­ence. Through the use of new tech­ni­cal resources, such as pho­tog­ra­phy, these the­o­ries devel­oped new ways of cap­tur­ing and rep­re­sent­ing the human body, seen as a vehi­cle for racial traits to be revealed to the dis­crim­i­nat­ing eye of the sci­en­tist or schol­ar.

The Politics of Remembering and Forgetting

Once arriv­ing in Brazil, Agas­siz showed an inter­est in study­ing local pop­u­la­tions and sought to doc­u­ment “Brazil­ian races” through the use of pho­tog­ra­phy. He com­ments on this effort in the appen­dix to his Jour­ney in Brazil, in the sec­tion enti­tled “Per­ma­nence of Char­ac­ter­is­tics in Dif­fer­ent Human Species.”(11) Accord­ing to the sci­en­tist, the Brazil­ian pop­u­la­tion rep­re­sent­ed an ide­al lab­o­ra­to­ry for study­ing the con­se­quences of dif­fer­ent types of race mix­ture on the con­sti­tu­tion of indi­vid­u­als, since there was such a high inci­dence of mis­ce­gena­tion. Fur­ther­more, Agas­siz saw this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to record and ana­lyze the soma­to­log­i­cal and phreno­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of dis­tinct African eth­nic groups, since mid-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Rio de Janeiro gave the nat­ur­al sci­en­tist access to a broad diver­si­ty of African peo­ples that it would have tak­en years of trav­el in Africa to see. Final­ly, as his appen­dix clear­ly illus­trates, Agas­siz sought to com­pare African “pure racial” types among them­selves, as well as to com­pare them with “mixed race” types, the lat­ter already show­ing signs of degen­er­a­tion.

In his efforts to sketch a pro­file of the Brazil­ian pop­u­la­tion, Agas­siz request­ed from Augus­to Stahl, a pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er in Rio, a set of pho­tographs of Africans, which he con­sid­ered to be “pure racial types.”(12) This request result­ed in two pho­to­graph­ic series, the first in the form of racial type and phreno­log­i­cal por­traits, and the sec­ond com­posed of soma­to­log­i­cal trip­tychs, illus­trat­ing pri­mar­i­ly male and female African eth­nic types in Rio de Janeiro, but also includ­ing some Chi­nese peo­ple who lived in the city. In the trip­tych com­po­si­tions, each sub­ject appears nude and in fixed pos­tures, front, rear, and pro­file. Each of the pho­tographs includes an eth­nic denom­i­na­tion iden­ti­fy­ing the sub­ject, which pro­vides a use­ful index for study­ing the African groups liv­ing in Rio de Janeiro at the time. How­ev­er, along­side eth­nic denom­i­na­tions, oth­er terms such as Muleque and Mula­to also appear, sig­nal­ing cat­e­gories of age, col­or, and descent that reflect­ed the ter­mi­nol­o­gy employed in slave soci­ety at the time, while also reveal­ing the sci­en­tif­ic incon­sis­ten­cy of the typol­o­gy that was adopt­ed.

Stahl’s set of “pure race” pho­tographs stand out because of the neu­tral form char­ac­ter­iz­ing the ser­i­al pre­sen­ta­tion of the mod­els, their tech­ni­cal qual­i­ty, and the care­ful label­ing of each subject’s eth­nic ori­gins, which indi­cates that the col­lec­tion fol­lowed well-estab­lished sci­en­tif­ic instruc­tions. Recent­ly, how­ev­er, new pho­tographs belong­ing to the series have been dis­cov­ered, reveal­ing that oth­er less neu­tral pic­tures may also have been pro­duced at the same time.(13)

Louis Agas­siz Pho­to­graph­ic Col­lec­tion. Ignez Mina, Rio, 1865. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown. Cour­tesy of the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

This is the case of Ignez Mina, whose pho­tographs appear in an ele­gant gold­en frame. Although the pho­tog­ra­ph­er for this sequence has not been ascer­tained, the images were pro­duced in the same place and year as Stahl’s “pure race” series, as “Ignez Mina, Rio, 1865” appears on the back of the prints. The first pic­ture por­trays Ignez Mina seat­ed, in pro­file. In this image, not only do we see the face of a young woman, but we can also observe her close-cropped hair, prob­a­bly a con­se­quence of the slave own­ers’ effort to con­trol the spread of lice. Scar­i­fi­ca­tions on her face appear in the form of the famous “cat’s whiskers,” described in dif­fer­ent trav­el accounts as typ­i­cal of Mina slaves, along with her ear­rings and the neck­lace rest­ing on her check­ered cloth dress.(14) A sec­ond image shows Ignez Mina sit­ting on a chair with the top of her dress rolled down, dis­play­ing her breasts. The next pic­ture reveals the same mod­el from behind, with her right arm extend­ed beside her body and her left arm bent, con­form­ing to stan­dards of soma­to­log­i­cal pho­tog­ra­phy. An iden­ti­cal gold­en trim frames this third image. Yet the fram­ing of Ignez’s body caus­es some sur­prise. Whether delib­er­ate­ly or not, the frame does not allow Ignez’s head to be seen. What appears in the frame is only the back of the young, nude body of a woman, which sug­gests an erot­i­cal­ly charged and high­ly per­son­al­ized approach for this sequence, with the own­er of the pic­ture choos­ing the angles and body parts that he would like to observe, that is, Ignez’s nude tor­so, but­tocks, and legs. Once removed from the frame, the full body of the mod­el can be viewed. At the same time, although Ignez’s image is set with­in an emp­ty back­ground, a long, dark cur­tain adorns the scene, caus­ing a rup­ture in the neu­tral char­ac­ter of the set­ting. The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the mod­el by name, absent in the oth­er series, lends a high­ly per­son­al char­ac­ter to the image. What the pho­tog­ra­ph­er cap­tured was the image of a spe­cif­ic woman, which includ­ed a name, an eth­nic ori­gin, an address, and a date. At the same time, how­ev­er, the own­er of the pic­ture, in strip­ping her of her cloth­ing and ele­ments of her per­son­al iden­ti­ty, deper­son­al­ized Ignez through the manip­u­la­tion of the angles and fea­tures pre­sent­ed to the view­er. These ele­ments appear to sug­gest that all of the pho­to­graph­ic sequences that Agas­siz com­mis­sioned dur­ing his expe­di­tion to Brazil involved per­son­al and erot­ic touch­es in the con­struc­tion of a col­lec­tion, which are char­ac­ter­is­tics that so far were clear­ly present only in the “mixed race” series from Man­aus, as we shall begin to see in the para­graph that fol­lows.

A third set of pho­tographs was made in Man­aus, with one of the expedition’s mem­bers serv­ing as pho­tog­ra­ph­er, pro­vid­ing a visu­al doc­u­men­ta­tion of “mixed” or “hybrid” Ama­zon­ian types. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Wal­ter Hun­newell, was a Har­vard stu­dent and vol­un­teer mem­ber of the expe­di­tion. When the group was in Rio de Janeiro, Agas­siz sent Hun­newell to learn the rudi­ments of pho­tog­ra­phy at one of the city’s pho­to­graph­ic estab­lish­ments, prob­a­bly either Leuzinger’s or Augus­to Stahl’s. Unlike the sequence pro­duced by Stahl, the “mixed race” series dis­plays the photographer’s lack of pro­fes­sion­al train­ing, as well as the absence of estab­lished sci­en­tif­ic pro­ce­dures. The whole set of pic­tures smacks of impro­vi­sa­tion, while push­ing the bound­aries of good taste.

Agas­siz hoped to employ his pure and mixed race pho­tographs to illus­trate his ideas on dif­fer­ent human races or species, as he him­self expressed in a let­ter to his friend and finan­cial backer of the Thay­er Expe­di­tion, the Emper­or Dom Pedro II of Brazil. In this let­ter, Agas­siz offered a pre­lim­i­nary eval­u­a­tion of how the research he led in Brazil was unfold­ing. In men­tion­ing the makeshift pho­to­graph­ic ate­lier set up in Man­aus, cap­i­tal of the Ama­zon Province, with the express intent of pro­duc­ing a series on “mixed races,” Agas­siz made it clear that in his under­stand­ing, race and species had dif­fer­ent impli­ca­tions when applied to the ani­mal king­dom or to humankind. Explain­ing the dif­fer­ence, he assert­ed that his research on race mix­ing had led him to the con­clu­sion that, among humans, “dif­fer­ent races relate to one anoth­er in the same way as species do with­in the ani­mal king­dom .…” The excerpt that fol­lows, hence, clear­ly illus­trates Agassiz’s posi­tion, which sug­gests that the debate over whether he con­sid­ered humankind to be divid­ed into either races or species appears to be a false issue:

The study of human race mix­ing in dif­fer­ent regions also became my con­cern and I com­mis­sioned numer­ous pho­tographs of all the dif­fer­ent types that I was able to observe. The main result I reached is that dif­fer­ent races relate to one anoth­er in the same way as species do with­in the ani­mal kind­gom, that is, the hybrids result­ing from the mix­ing of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent races are always a mix­ture of two prim­i­tive types and nev­er the sim­ple repro­duc­tion of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of one or the oth­er of their par­ents, as in the case of races of domes­tic ani­mals. In these two cas­es, the term race thus applies to very dif­fer­ent things.(15)

In spite of all his effort in the study of human races, Agas­siz in effect pro­duced very mod­est results. He bare­ly used the Brazil­ian col­lec­tion at all, with a few of the prints serv­ing as a basis for the wood engrav­ings that illus­trat­ed A Jour­ney in Brazil. After that, the col­lec­tion was nev­er exhib­it­ed, due to a series of polit­i­cal and aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cum­stances that ren­dered his ambi­tious project for the study of human races obso­lete. At the same time, also part­ly through the acqui­si­tion of pho­tographs, espe­cial­ly from the Anthro­po­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Paris, found­ed in 1859 by Paul Bro­ca, Agas­siz assem­bled a set of albums filled with fig­ures from all cor­ners of the world, each por­trayed in typ­i­cal dress and pho­tographed in his or her “nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment.”(16) The fourth vol­ume of this set was giv­en the name Negroes and Sun­dries, and pre­sent­ed series of Africans and African-Amer­i­cans in dif­fer­ent parts of the world. In 1910, these albums were donat­ed to the Peabody Muse­um at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty by Alexan­der Agas­siz, son of the Swiss sci­en­tist and a nat­ur­al sci­en­tist in his own right, who also occu­pied the posi­tion first held by his father as direc­tor of the Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zool­o­gy at the same uni­ver­si­ty.(17)

Although he had planned to pub­lish his South Car­oli­na and Brazil­ian pho­to­graph­ic series at some point, Agas­siz nev­er actu­al­ly exhib­it­ed his whole col­lec­tion to a wider audi­ence. Prob­a­bly the only time that Agas­siz dis­played and com­ment­ed on the South Car­oli­na pho­tographs in pub­lic was in a lec­ture on human racial diver­si­ty deliv­ered to the Cam­bridge Sci­en­tif­ic Club in Sep­tem­ber 1850.(18) The Brazil­ian col­lec­tion nev­er reached the pub­lic eye. The del­i­cate polit­i­cal cli­mate of post­bel­lum New Eng­land, along with Louis Agassiz’s own loss of sci­en­tif­ic cred­i­bil­i­ty fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Charles Darwin’s The Ori­gin of Species, pre­vent­ed him from mak­ing pub­lic what was to be his defin­i­tive work in estab­lish­ing the infe­ri­or­i­ty of blacks and the ills of hybridism. At some point fol­low­ing Agassiz’s demise in 1873, his son Alexan­der also donat­ed both of these col­lec­tions (from South Car­oli­na and Brazil) to the Peabody Muse­um, prob­a­bly on the same occa­sion as the albums men­tioned above, that is, in 1910. Although Gwyniera Isaac asserts that the col­lec­tion was trans­ferred from the Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zool­o­gy to the Peabody in 1935, research in both these insti­tu­tions failed to come up with any proof of this date, at least in rela­tion to the Brazil­ian col­lec­tion.(19)

At the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the ques­tion of racial infe­ri­or­i­ty acquired new twists. Both cre­ation­ism and poly­genism, once con­sid­ered to be seri­ous sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries, rapid­ly lost their cred­i­bil­i­ty. As a sign of the new times, the daguerreo­types of South Car­oli­na slaves were put into stor­age, open­ing the way for a new visu­al econ­o­my focus­ing on anoth­er non­white sub­ject, in an effort to estab­lish col­lec­tions of images of non-West­ern peo­ples and cul­tures rather than to doc­u­ment racial types. Nev­er­the­less, pho­tog­ra­phy in the ser­vice of anthro­pol­o­gy con­tin­ued to pro­duce series of soma­to­log­i­cal images, such as the one devel­oped by Patrick Put­nam among the Mbu­ti “pyg­mies” of the Bel­gian Con­go in the 1920s.(20) At that point, how­ev­er, tech­ni­cal pro­to­cols had become more “neu­tral” and dis­tant from the pho­to­graph­ic sub­ject, super­sed­ing the per­son­al­ized aspect asso­ci­at­ed with ear­ly racial and eth­nic pho­tog­ra­phy. Giv­en these new per­spec­tives, the fif­teen daguerreo­types assem­bled by Agas­siz became lost, tucked away in some nook in the muse­um.

It was only in 1975 that Eli­nor Reich­lin, staff mem­ber at the Peabody Muse­um, chanced upon the fif­teen glass-plate neg­a­tives from South Car­oli­na in an unused stor­age cab­i­net in the museum’s attic. The six decades bridg­ing the peri­od between the pre­sumed dona­tion of the col­lec­tion and Reichlin’s unex­pect­ed dis­cov­ery marked a sig­nif­i­cant shift in per­spec­tive and allowed for a new inter­pre­ta­tion of the pho­to­graph­ic images of Ren­ty and his com­pan­ions.(21) When they were pub­licly dis­played for the first time, in an exhi­bi­tion titled Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Pho­tog­ra­phy, held by the Amon Carter Muse­um in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1992, the daguerreo­type series caused a con­sid­er­able stir in the Unit­ed States, pro­vok­ing a live­ly debate over the ori­gins, meth­ods, and ide­o­log­i­cal under­pin­nings of the col­lec­tion.(22) The Peabody Muse­um, for exam­ple, con­sid­ered the oppres­sive atmos­phere and the lack of con­sent in the pro­duc­tion of slave images in South Car­oli­na grounds for estab­lish­ing a pol­i­cy of guard­ed cau­tion in rela­tion to allow­ing the exhi­bi­tion of images pro­duced under those con­di­tions.(23)

The Brazil­ian col­lec­tion remained out of cir­cu­la­tion for near­ly a cen­tu­ry and a half. When the col­lec­tion was moved from the Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zool­o­gy to the Peabody, the pho­tographs became sep­a­rat­ed from the sup­port­ing doc­u­ments, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy the mod­els, to estab­lish the cor­rect dates, and to track the tra­jec­to­ry of the pho­to­graph­ic process.(24) The dif­fer­ent numer­i­cal sequences etched on the glass plates of the “mixed race” series indi­cate that Agas­siz and his assis­tants care­ful­ly record­ed infor­ma­tion on each of the pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects, fol­low­ing the same pro­ce­dures used to iden­ti­fy the dif­fer­ent species of fish col­lect­ed by vol­un­teer assis­tants, includ­ing William James, and drawn by the expedition’s artist, Jacques Burkhardt.(25) Not only that, the pho­to­graph­ic col­lec­tion remained uncat­a­logued, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for the occa­sion­al researcher to con­sult the images. The same issue of con­sent on the part of the sub­jects, espe­cial­ly for the “pure race” series, which prob­a­bly used slaves as mod­els, raised fur­ther obsta­cles to mak­ing this col­lec­tion avail­able in its entire­ty.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the absence of more com­plete records doc­u­ment­ing the “mixed race” series, which would make it pos­si­ble to under­stand the cir­cum­stances under which the pho­tographs were made, has also pre­vent­ed the Peabody from adopt­ing a more open pol­i­cy on autho­riz­ing the repro­duc­tion of these images. While we know from Eliz­a­beth Agassiz’s and William James’s accounts that the models—mostly women—recruited by Agas­siz to pose naked or par­tial­ly dressed were for the most part free per­sons and that many of the women belonged to respectable social cir­cles, there remains lit­tle doubt that the atmos­phere in the so-called Bureau d’Anthropologie, where the pho­tographs were tak­en, was not the most dig­ni­fied set­ting.(26) The specters of oppres­sion and manip­u­la­tion loom over both series. This sit­u­a­tion is even more evi­dent for the pho­tographs of women, since the bound­aries between racial and erot­ic pho­tog­ra­phy are dan­ger­ous­ly blurred. The dressed, par­tial­ly dressed, and nude mod­els in many pho­to­graph­ic series fit with­in the clas­sic stan­dards of erot­ic pho­tog­ra­phy.(27)

Con­scious­ly informed by racial­ized and racist pre­cepts, the pho­to­graph­ic col­lec­tions that Louis Agas­siz put togeth­er in South Car­oli­na, Rio de Janeiro, and Man­aus are strik­ing­ly cur­rent as they evoke the faces, bod­ies, and lives of peo­ple who were erased, not only by the objec­ti­fy­ing lens of sci­ence, but also by the pol­i­tics of for­get­ting. Our aim is to take a step in the oppo­site direc­tion.

Adopt­ing a cau­tious yet inquis­i­tive approach, while seek­ing to ana­lyze the for­ma­tion of this col­lec­tion in all of its dif­fer­ent dimen­sions, choos­ing a nar­ra­tive tone that avoids nat­u­ral­iz­ing with­out shy­ing away from the more polem­i­cal aspects pre­sent­ed by the pho­tographs, this work hopes to cast these images in a new and dif­fer­ent light. Notwith­stand­ing the racial vision that pro­duced them, we believe that it is pos­si­ble to resig­ni­fy the images of Africans, Indi­ans, and mes­ti­zos pho­tographed by Louis Agas­siz. Inso­far as we fix our gaze on these images, new aspects and infor­ma­tion will begin to emerge. Cer­tain­ly one of the most dis­turb­ing aspects lies in the fact that the mod­els are ren­dered frag­ile through the expo­sure of their naked bod­ies at the same instance that they them­selves gaze into the cam­era, and con­se­quent­ly gaze at us, who are view­ing the pho­to­graph. This pro­vokes an embar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion for us as view­ers, as we tend to avoid con­fronting the scene direct­ly, avert­ing our eyes. How­ev­er, when we do look at those peo­ple who gaze at us, we encounter the force with which they faced a dehu­man­iz­ing expe­ri­ence, while con­tin­u­ing to be, sim­ply and pro­found­ly, human.

Trans­lat­ed from the Por­tuguese by John Mon­teiro

Maria Hele­na Pereira Tole­do Macha­do is a full pro­fes­sor in the His­to­ry Depart­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty of São Paulo, Brazil. She has pub­lished sev­er­al books and numer­ous arti­cles cov­er­ing nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry slav­ery, abo­li­tion, trav­el, and pho­tog­ra­phy in Brazil. In 2006, she pub­lished the book Brazil through the Eyes of William James and in 2010 orga­nized a pho­to­graph­ic expo­si­tion along with the book (T)Races of Louis Agas­siz: Pho­tog­ra­phy, Body, and Sci­ence, Yes­ter­day and Today (coedit­ed with Sasha Hüber). Cur­rent­ly she is prepar­ing, along with John Mon­teiro, a book with the com­plete col­lec­tion of Louis Agassiz’s pho­tographs from Brazil.


(1) This arti­cle is an expand­ed ver­sion of the chap­ter pub­lished in Macha­do, Maria Hele­na P. T., and Huber, Sasha, eds., (T)races of Louis Agas­siz: Pho­tog­ra­phy, Body, and Sci­ence, Yes­ter­day and Today (São Paulo: Capacete and 21st São Paulo Art Bien­ni­al, 2010).

(2) On Agassiz’s ideas about human races, see, among oth­ers: Menand, Louis, The Meta­phys­i­cal Club: A Sto­ry of Ideas in Amer­i­ca (New York: Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), espe­cial­ly chap­ters “Agas­siz” and “Brazil”; Lurie, Edward, Louis Agas­siz: A Life in Sci­ence (Bal­ti­more: Johns Hop­kins Press, 1988), 143–144; Fred­er­ick­son, George, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-Amer­i­can Char­ac­ter and Des­tiny, 1817–1914 (Hanover, New Hamp­shire: Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987), 71–96; and Num­bers, Ronald L., The Cre­ation­ists: From Sci­en­tif­ic Cre­ation­ism to Intel­li­gent Design (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2006), 15–32; Macha­do, Maria Hele­na P. T., Brasil a Vapor, Raça, Ciên­cia e Viagem no Sécu­lo XIX, unpub­lish livre-docên­cia the­sis, FFLCH, Uni­ver­si­dade de São Paulo, 2005, 16–85; Macha­do, Maria Hele­na P. T. (ed). Brazil through the Eyes of William James. Let­ters, Diaries, and Draw­ings, 1865–1866 (Cam­bridge: David Rock­e­feller Cen­ter for Latin Amer­i­can Studies/Harvard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2006), 25–40; Macha­do, Maria Hele­na P. T., “A Ciên­cia Norte-Amer­i­cana Visi­ta a Amazô­nia: Entre o Cria­cionis­mo Cristão e o Poli­genis­mo Degen­era­cionista,” Revista da USP, n. 75, setembro/novembro 2007, 68–75.

(3) On the ideas about deport­ing African-Amer­i­cans in the peri­od pre­ced­ing and after the Civ­il War, see Burin, Eric, Slav­ery and the Pecu­liar Solu­tion (Gainesville: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Flori­da, 2005); Horne, Ger­ald, The Deep­est South: The Unit­ed States, Brazil, and the African Slave Trade (New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007); Macha­do, Maria Hele­na P. T., Brasil a Vapor … , part 1; Macha­do, Maria Hele­na P. T., Brazil through the Eyes … , 16–17; and Sam­paio, Maria Clara C., “Fron­teiras Negras ao Sul: A Pro­pos­ta dos Esta­dos Unidos de Col­o­nizar a Amazô­nia Brasileira com Afrode­scen­dentes Norte-Amer­i­canos na Déca­da de 1860,” unpub­lished master’s the­sis, FFLCH-USP, 2009.

(4) In a let­ter to Louis Agas­siz, dat­ed August 18, 1863, Samuel Howe, mil­i­tant abo­li­tion­ist and direc­tor of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency cre­at­ed dur­ing the Civ­il War to assist freed slaves, wrote: “Some pro­claim amal­ga­ma­tion as the rem­e­dy, upon the the­o­ry that by dilut­ing black blood with white blood in larg­er and larg­er pro­por­tions, it will final­ly be so far dilut­ed as to be imper­cep­ti­ble and will dis­ap­pear. They for­get that we may not do the wrong that right may come of it. They for­get that no amount of dif­fu­sion will exter­mi­nate what­ev­er exists; that a pint of ink dif­fused in a lake is still there, and the water is only the less pure.” Agas­siz, Elizabeth,ed., Louis Agas­siz: His Life and Cor­re­spon­dence, Ebook # 7068, Guten­berg Project, down­loaded July 2004.

(5) Wal­lis, Bri­an, “Black Bod­ies, White Sci­ence: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreo­types, Amer­i­can Art, vol. 9 (Sum­mer 1995), 38–61, “Black Bod­ies, White Sci­ence: The Slave Daguerreo­types of Louis Agas­siz,” The Jour­nal of Blacks in High­er Edu­ca­tion, 12 (Sum­mer 1996), 102–106 and Ban­ta, Melis­sa, A Curi­ous and Inge­nious Art: Reflec­tions on Daguerreo­types at Har­vard (Iowa City: Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2000), 43–51.

(6) Ban­ta, Melis­sa, A Curi­ous and Inge­nious Art, 47.

(7) Seku­la, Alan, “The Body and the Archive,” in Richard Bolton, ed., The Con­test of Mean­ing: Crit­i­cal His­to­ries of Pho­tog­ra­phy  (Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts: MIT Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992), 343–389.

(8) Bind­man, David, Ape to Apol­lo: Aes­thet­ics and the Idea of Race in the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002), 190–222.

(9) Rogers, Mol­ly, Delia’s Tears: Race, Sci­ence, and Pho­tog­ra­phy in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010), 219.

(10) On this sub­ject, see Anti­nori, Alessan­dra Cardel­li, “Le foto africane del fon­do Gigli­oli nell’archivio fotografi­co del Museo Pig­ori­ni” in Alessan­dro Tri­ulzi, ed., Fotografia e Sto­ria dell’Africa: atti del Con­veg­no Inter­nazionale, Napoli-Roma, set­tem­bre, 1992. Napoli: IVO, 1995, 161–171; Seku­la, Alan, “The Body and the Archive,” 343–389; Viditz-Ward, Vera, “Os Criou­los de Free­town” and Cha­puis, Frédérique, “Os Pre­cur­sores de Saint Louis,” in Saint Léon, Pas­cal Mar­tin, and Fall, N’Gone, eds., Antolo­gia Revue Noire da Fotografia Africana e do Oceano Índi­co, Sécu­los XIX e XX (Paris: Revue Noir, 1998), 35–41 and 49–63, respec­tive­ly; and Geary, Chris­traud M., In and Out of Focus: Images from Cen­tral Africa, 1885–1960 (Lon­don: Philip Wil­son Pub­lish­ers, 2002), espe­cial­ly the chap­ter “The World of Images,” 15–21.

(11) Agas­siz, Eliz­a­beth and Louis, A Jour­ney in Brazil (Boston: Tic­knor & Fields, 1868), Appen­dix V, 529–532.

(12) On the con­cept of “type,” see Eliz­a­beth Edwards, “Pho­to­graph­ic ‘Types’: The Pur­suit of a Method,” Visu­al Anthro­pol­o­gy, 3: 2–3, 1990, 235–258.

(13) I would like to thank Greg Fried for inform­ing me about his dis­cov­ery of the Ignez Mina set and Pat Ker­vick of the Peabody Muse­um for kind­ly send­ing me copies of these images.

(14) For a dis­cus­sion of Mina peo­ples and their scar­i­fi­ca­tion prac­tices, see Soares, Car­los Eugênio Líbano, and Dos San­tos Gomes, Flávio, “Negras Minas no Rio de Janeiro: Gênero, Nação e Tra­bal­ho Urbano no Sécu­lo XIX,” in De Car­val­ho Soares, Mariza, ed., Rotas Atlân­ti­cas da Diás­po­ra Africana: Da Bahia do Ben­im ao Rio de Janeiro (Niterói: Edi­to­ra da UFF, 2007), 191–224, along with the arti­cle ‘“Pure Race’ Africans and Eth­nic Diver­si­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Rio de Janeiro,” by Dos San­tos Gomes, Flávio, on this site.

(15) Louis Agas­siz to Dom Pedro II, emper­or of Brazil, Pará, Feb­ru­ary 23, 1866, in Anuário do Museu Impe­r­i­al, 13, 1952, 100. An excerpt also was includ­ed in A Jour­ney in Brazil, 380. Trans­lat­ed from the orig­i­nal in French. Empha­sis on the terms “races” and “species” appear in the orig­i­nal let­ter.

(16) Ban­ta, Melis­sa, A Curi­ous and Inge­nious Art, 49.

(17) Put­nam, Frank, “The Peabody Muse­um of Amer­i­can Arche­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy,” in Forty-Fourth Report on the Peabody Muse­um of Amer­i­can Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, 1909–1910 (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1911). Today these albums are kept in the rare book sec­tion of the Tozzer Library at Har­vard.

(18) Rogers, Mol­ly, Delia’s Tears, 233.

(19) Isaac, Gwyniera, “Louis Agassiz’s Pho­tographs in Brazil: Sep­a­rate Cre­ations,” His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy, 21:1, Spring 1997, 7.

(20) On the devel­op­ment of a visu­al cul­ture at the Peabody Muse­um, see Ban­ta, Melis­sa, and Hins­ley, M. Cur­tis, From Site to Sight: Anthro­pol­o­gy, Pho­tog­ra­phy, and the Pow­er of Imagery (Cam­bridge: Peabody Muse­um Press, 1986), 11–14 and 18–27.

(21) Unsigned edi­to­r­i­al, “Faces of Slav­ery.” Amer­i­can Her­itage, vol. 28, issue 4, June 1997.

(22) Wal­lis, Bri­an, “Black Bod­ies, White Sci­ence: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreo­types,” 40.

(23) Ban­ta, Melis­sa, and Hins­ley, M. Cur­tis, From Site to Sight, 58–59.

(24) This doc­u­men­ta­tion failed to appear dur­ing sys­tem­at­ic research at the Peabody, the Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zool­o­gy, and Houghton Archives, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, in 2003-04 and 2006.

(25) On William James’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the expe­di­tion, see Macha­do, Maria Helene P. T., Brazil through the Eyes of William James. Jacques Burkhardt’s water­col­ors of fish col­lect­ed dur­ing the Thay­er Expe­di­tion, kept in the Ernst Mayr Library, may be viewed on the Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zoology’s web­site.

(26) Eliz­a­beth Agassiz’s com­ments on the pho­to­graph­ic stu­dio may be seen in Agas­siz, Eliz­a­beth and Louis, A Jour­ney in Brazil, 276, and William James’s in Macha­do, Brazil through the Eyes of William James, 23. See also “Mr. Hunnewell’s Black Hands,” by Mon­teiro, John, on this site.

(27) Stepan, Nan­cy Leys, Pic­tur­ing Trop­i­cal Nature (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001), 85–119.