True Pictures

[NOTE: This essay page is cur­rent­ly being refor­mat­ted; please be patient as we revise.]

True Pic­tures”: Fred­er­ick Dou­glass on the Promise of Pho­tog­ra­phy
Gre­go­ry Fried, Suf­folk Uni­ver­si­ty

Man is the only pic­ture-mak­ing ani­mal in the world. He alone of all the inhab­i­tants of the earth has the capac­i­ty and pas­sion for pic­tures … Poets, prophets, and reform­ers are all pic­ture-mak­ers, and this abil­i­ty is the secret of their pow­er and achieve­ments: they see what ought to be by the reflec­tion of what is, and endeav­or to remove the
con­tra­dic­tion.  —
Fred­er­ick Dou­glass

Fig­ure 1: Unknown pho­tog­ra­ph­er, two box­ers, ambrotype (cir­ca 1860), col­lec­tion of Greg French.

In the late sum­mer of 1839, at an extra­or­di­nary joint meet­ing of the Acad­e­my of Sci­ence and the Acad­e­my of Fine Arts in Paris, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre pre­sent­ed to the pub­lic and to the world the first tru­ly suc­cess­ful pho­to­graph­ic process: the daguerreo­type. It is hard for us to grasp now, after more than 170 years of pho­tog­ra­phy, the aston­ish­ment and enthu­si­asm that greet­ed Daguerre’s dis­cov­ery. On a small plate of met­al, Daguerre coaxed the sun’s rays, guid­ed by the lens of a cam­era, to pro­duce an image whose detail was as minute­ly faith­ful to real­i­ty as the reflec­tion in a mirror—only in black and white. In an age of soar­ing expec­ta­tions for sci­ence, the daguerreo­type sym­bol­ized the pos­si­bil­i­ty that human inge­nu­ity might cap­ture the very essence of nature.

The daguerreo­type is tru­ly a mar­vel: strict­ly speak­ing, it is impos­si­ble to repro­duce one, since a daguerreo­type image sits on a sil­ver sur­face that reflects like a mir­ror; one there­fore sees one­self in the image, too. The only way to appre­ci­ate a daguerreo­type prop­er­ly is to see it, as it were, in per­son. This per­son­al inti­ma­cy and imme­di­a­cy lent much of the fer­vor to what Fred­er­ick Dou­glass called the new “pas­sion for pic­tures.” While the inven­tor of the daguerreo­type was a French­man, nowhere did this pas­sion catch on as it did in the still young Unit­ed States. For Dou­glass, the for­mer slave and abo­li­tion­ist ora­tor, pho­tog­ra­phy, as a mir­ror of real­i­ty, would serve as a new weapon in the fight for free­dom and human dig­ni­ty.

Samuel F. B. Morse, the Amer­i­can inven­tor and painter, hap­pened to be in Paris in 1838–39 to pro­mote his own inven­tion, the elec­tro­mag­net­ic tele­graph. There he met and befriend­ed Daguerre. Morse tried his hand at the process as soon as Daguerre made it pub­lic, and, on his return to the States, he suc­cess­ful­ly spread word of Daguerre’s genius to his fel­low Amer­i­cans. Scores, then hun­dreds, and final­ly thou­sands of Amer­i­can prac­ti­tion­ers took up the art, improv­ing the tech­nique so rapid­ly that by the ear­ly 1840s a skill­ful daguerreo­typ­ist could earn a respectable income as a por­traitist. The Amer­i­can pub­lic hun­gered unre­lent­ing­ly for por­traits.

Dou­glass explains this pas­sion well: “The great dis­cov­er­er of mod­ern times, to whom com­ing gen­er­a­tions will award spe­cial homage, will be Daguerre. Morse has brought the seeds of the earth togeth­er, and Daguerre has made it a pic­ture gallery. We have pic­tures, true pic­tures, of every object which can inter­est us … What was once the spe­cial and exclu­sive lux­u­ry of the rich and great is now the priv­i­lege of all. The hum­blest ser­vant girl may now pos­sess a pic­ture of her­self such as the wealth of kings could not pur­chase fifty years ago.”

By the 1850s and 1860s, Amer­i­can inge­nu­ity had led to an explo­sion of pho­to­graph­ic tech­niques includ­ing the ambrotype, tin­type, and carte-de-visite—all to feed the end­less Amer­i­can appetite for por­traits. Tens of mil­lions of images were pro­duced. Once, por­trai­ture had been the “spe­cial and exclu­sive lux­u­ry” of the rich or the noble in the form of paint­ings or sculp­tures that cost a small for­tune to com­mis­sion; now Amer­i­cans could assert their egal­i­tar­i­an­ism in self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion. For less than a day’s wages, even a hum­ble house­maid could con­firm her dig­ni­ty and make her bid for immor­tal­i­ty (fig. 2).


Fig­ure 2: Anony­mous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, three house­maids, tin­type (cir­ca 1870s), col­lec­tion of Gre­go­ry Fried.

As Fred­er­ick Dou­glass saw it, Morse and Daguerre were two facets of the same democ­ra­tiz­ing rev­o­lu­tion, a rev­o­lu­tion that was fast unit­ing the world in com­mu­ni­ca­tion (Morse) and in image (Daguerre). For Dou­glass, this uni­ver­sal­iz­ing and democ­ra­tiz­ing rev­o­lu­tion involved more than a break­ing down of class divi­sions; it also meant attack­ing what we might call the optics of racism, that is, how white Euro­peans had come to see black Africans as a near­ly sep­a­rate species, a view that cor­rupt­ed paint­ed por­traits: “Negroes can nev­er have impar­tial por­traits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impos­si­ble for white men to take like­ness­es of black men, with­out most gross­ly exag­ger­at­ing their dis­tinc­tive fea­tures. And the rea­son is obvi­ous. Artists, like all oth­er white per­sons, have adopt­ed a the­o­ry respect­ing the dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of Negro phys­iog­no­my.” When Dou­glass com­plained about how white artists “take like­ness­es” of blacks, he meant painters, sculp­tors, and engravers—all artists except pho­tog­ra­phers, because in all oth­er art forms, the artist’s pre­con­ceived way of see­ing nec­es­sar­i­ly intrudes upon the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the sub­ject mat­ter. In voic­ing this com­plaint, Dou­glass echoed a wide­ly held notion about pho­tog­ra­phy, one that per­sists to this day: that unlike oth­er tech­niques in art, pho­tog­ra­phy is a true mir­ror of nature whose method, because it relies on the non­par­ti­san effec­tive­ness of rays of light rather than the hand of human beings, can present us with what Dou­glass called “true pic­tures” of real­i­ty.

Many con­tem­po­rary the­o­rists would now ques­tion that assump­tion. They would claim that pho­tog­ra­phy is more art than sci­ence by point­ing to how the sub­ject mat­ter is arranged, how the light­ing is manip­u­lat­ed, what type of lens or print­ing-out paper is employed, even to the way the scene is com­posed and framed. All these fac­tors play as much of a sub­jec­tive role in pro­duc­ing and see­ing the work of art as does the hand of the artist with a paint­brush or a mal­let and chis­el. The pho­to­graph, then, is no more a “true pic­ture” of real­i­ty than a cubist paint­ing by Picas­so.

But, at least for now, let us give Dou­glass the ben­e­fit of the doubt. After all, there is for most of us, in our pre-the­o­ret­i­cal expe­ri­ence of pho­tog­ra­phy, some­thing of that expe­ri­ence of imme­di­a­cy and rev­e­la­tion of real­i­ty that so aston­ished and inspired him, as well as so many oth­er Amer­i­cans, a cen­tu­ry and a half ago. Dou­glass was pho­tographed often. One of the very ear­li­est known por­traits of him was tak­en in the mid-1840s, prob­a­bly just around the time the 1845 pub­li­ca­tion of The Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, an Amer­i­can Slave Writ­ten by Him­self made Dou­glass a nation­al and then an inter­na­tion­al celebri­ty. This aus­tere por­trait (fig. 3) of the still youth­ful Dou­glass, who meets our gaze so force­ful­ly, epit­o­mizes his hope and expec­ta­tion that pho­tog­ra­phy might bestow a pub­lic dig­ni­ty upon African Amer­i­cans that would pro­vide a pic­to­r­i­al argu­ment for their inclu­sion in the promise of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence: that the only legit­i­mate gov­ern­ment is one that gives sup­port to the self-evi­dent truth that all men are cre­at­ed equal.


Fig­ure 3: Anony­mous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, sixth-plate daguerreo­type (cir­ca 1845), col­lec­tion of Greg French.

Many oth­er por­traits make a sim­i­lar visu­al argu­ment, such as this one of an unnamed self-con­fi­dent keyed bugle play­er (fig. 4).


Fig­ure 4: Anony­mous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, man with keyed bugle, daguerreo­type (cir­ca 1845), col­lec­tion of Greg French.

The por­trait of this man, with his sophis­ti­cat­ed instru­ment and sheet music, pro­claims his capac­i­ty for refine­ment and self-cul­ti­va­tion. Or con­sid­er this por­trait of an uniden­ti­fied African Amer­i­can woman whose strength and resilience break through the stiff pose of con­ven­tion­al por­trai­ture (fig. 5):


Fig­ure 5: Anony­mous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, woman in tint­ed dress, daguerreo­type (late 1840s), col­lec­tion of Greg French.

These por­traits, and oth­ers such as this one of a man hold­ing a book, show sit­ters who have attained some­thing like mid­dle-class respectabil­i­ty (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Hooke and Co. (Fran­cis Hooke, pro­pri­etor): sub­ject unknown, sixth-plate daguerreo­type, 1850. Col­lec­tion of Greg French. Oth­er por­traits, such as this 1849 daguer­rotype of a man in his work clothes and an apron (fig. 7) or the por­trait of a fire­man in his gear (fig. 8), illus­trate that African Amer­i­can labor­ers and arti­sans could also afford to show them­selves for who they were, with pride in their trade or their work in pub­lic ser­vice. Fig. 7. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­ject unknown, sixth-plate daguerreo­type, c. 1849–55. Col­lec­tion of Greg French.     

Fig. 8. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­ject unknown, quar­ter-plate tin­type, c. 1860–65. Col­lec­tion of Greg French.  When the Civ­il War broke out, Dou­glass lob­bied Pres­i­dent Lin­coln pas­sion­ate­ly for the right of African Amer­i­cans to bear arms and fight for the Union cause: “I have a right to ask when I … march to the bat­tle field” for “a coun­try or the hope of a coun­try under me, a gov­ern­ment that rec­og­nizes my man­hood around me, and a flag of free­dom wav­ing over me!” By 1863, black reg­i­ments were form­ing and young African Amer­i­can men res­olute­ly
met the call to arms (fig. 9). Fig. 9. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­ject unknown, quar­ter-plate ambrotype, c. 1863–65.  Col­lec­tion of Greg French.  The nation­al strug­gle over the polit­i­cal mean­ing of race found expres­sion in all are­nas of ante­bel­lum visu­al cul­ture. In The Octoroon, a stat­ue made by John Bell, a naked and appar­ent­ly “white” woman, her arms in chains, her clothes on the pil­lar beside her, bows her head in a sor­row­ful yet dig­ni­fied res­ig­na­tion to inspec­tion before going to the auc­tion block (fig. 10). Fig. 10. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: The Octoroon (from a sculp­ture by John Bell), albu­men print, one half of a stere­o­graph, c. 1870. Col­lec­tion of Gre­go­ry Fried.  As F. James Davis has explained so well in Who Is Black?, the Amer­i­can cat­e­go­riza­tion of race is unique in the world. By the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, in reac­tion to the threat of abo­li­tion and to the fact of inter­breed­ing between whites and blacks, the Unit­ed States had devel­oped the so-called “one-drop rule,” stip­u­lat­ing that even a sin­gle African ances­tor was enough to make a per­son black, not white—and legal­ly a slave if born to a slave mother—no mat­ter how dis­tant that ances­tor or how white-look­ing the sub­ject. The Octoroon offers a chal­lenge to the one-drop rule by ask­ing white Amer­i­cans, Can’t you see that this per­son, whom the law and social con­ven­tion treat as a slave and prac­ti­cal­ly a dif­fer­ent species, is in fact just like us? This same visu­al argu­ment is made in a Civ­il War–era pho­to­graph, “White and Black Slaves” (fig. 11). Fig. 11. Kim­ball: sub­jects unknown (“White and Black Slaves”), carte-de-vis­ite, 1863. Col­lec­tion of Greg French. The sub­jects here are lib­er­at­ed slaves from New Orleans—of vary­ing shades of skin col­or. The force of the title is the notion that the visu­al mark­er of skin col­or makes no sense as an indi­ca­tor of race—and that, by exten­sion, race itself makes no sense as a con­cept by which to orga­nize soci­ety. “Slaves from New Orleans,” in which a very dark-skinned adult man reads with three lighter-skinned chil­dren, makes the same argu­ment again: race and skin tone make no dif­fer­ence to the essen­tial and uni­ver­sal dig­ni­ty of human beings, all of whom deserve and are capa­ble of edu­ca­tion and uplift. Pho­tographs like this can teach us about the fun­da­men­tal ambi­gu­i­ty of race: race is an arti­fi­cial, not a nat­ur­al, cat­e­go­ry, but once con­ven­tion gives it a social real­i­ty, race can make a ter­ri­ble dif­fer­ence (fig.12). Fig. 12. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: Wil­son [Chinn], Charley, Rebec­ca, and Rosa (“Learn­ing Is Wealth”), carte-de-vis­ite, c. 1863. Col­lec­tion of Greg French. Some images present dif­fi­cul­ties for Douglass’s hope that pho­tog­ra­phy would serve as an unam­bigu­ous lan­guage of free­dom. For exam­ple, con­sid­er this por­trait of a slave from Mis­souri (fig. 13). Fig. 13. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­ject unknown but iden­ti­fied as Richard’s Fam­i­ly slave, Mon­ti­cel­lo (Lewis Coun­ty), Mis­souri, quar­ter-plate daguerreo­type, c.  1850. Col­lec­tion of Greg French.  The elder­ly man has been posed with a hoe, a sym­bol of his servi­tude, and a bas­ket of  pro­duce at his side. We have to won­der: why did his own­er make this por­trait? Because giv­en the social con­ven­tions of the time, it would have been vir­tu­al­ly unheard of for a slave to com­mis­sion and pur­chase a por­trait of him­self. Was it a mark of the owner’s affec­tion for this aging slave? As a token of the master’s wealth and suc­cess? Oth­er por­traits of ser­vants, whether slave or free, also bear wit­ness to a mut­ed strength that speaks at the edges, as it were, of the sub­ject mat­ter of the pho­to­graph. The intend­ed sub­ject of this pho­to­graph (fig. 14) is obvi­ous­ly the wealthy white woman at the cen­ter; she or her fam­i­ly has paid for this por­trait, and she has come with her dog and her ser­vant to demon­strate her gen­teel sta­tus. The woman’s atten­tion is focused on the dog, not the per­son direct­ly beside her, and yet it is the ser­vant who meets our eye and makes human con­tact, a con­nec­tion that her mis­tress refus­es to her. Fig. 14. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­jects unknown, quar­ter-plate ambrotype,c. 1857–61. Col­lec­tion of Greg French. Some­thing sim­i­lar takes place in this ante­bel­lum “nan­ny por­trait,” in which the intend­ed sub­ject is the white child, and the client includes the family’s black slave or ser­vant to indi­cate a class sta­tus: we are rich enough to afford this nan­ny (fig. 15). Fig. 15. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­jects unknown, quar­ter-plate ambrotype, c. 1857–61. Col­lec­tion of Greg French. Here, the young nan­ny (pos­si­bly a slave, pos­si­bly a ser­vant) meets our gaze. Her demeanor, with her hands fold­ed pro­tec­tive­ly across the squirm­ing tod­dler in her lap, is not one of defi­ance but rather of reserved sup­port­ive­ness. But what do we make of the extra­or­di­nary ele­ment of the human hair sealed under the glass, between the brass mat and the image, arranged as a kind of halo around the two fig­ures? Per­haps it is the child’s, but it has the tex­ture of an adult’s hair rather than the wisps of a tod­dler. If the hair is the nanny’s, then that sure­ly indi­cates the impor­tant place she held in the fam­i­ly, how­ev­er sub­or­di­nate. Three images from the Civ­il War era illus­trate the nation­al debate over
the line between black and white (figs. 16, 17, 18). Fig. 16. Kim­ball: Wil­son Chinn, carte-de-vis­ite, 1863. Col­lec­tion of Greg French.  Fig. 17. Kim­ball: Isaac and Rosa, carte-de-vis­ite, 1863.Col­lec­tion of Greg French.     Fig. 18. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er unknown: sub­jects unknown, carte-de-vis­ite, c. 1861–65.  Col­lec­tion of Greg French. All are cartes-de-vis­ite, the prod­ucts of a pho­to­graph­ic process that allowed for mass repro­duc­tion, whether for sale at a prof­it or for rais­ing char­i­ta­ble funds. Print­ed text on the reverse of the first two cards—of the brand­ed slave, Wil­son Chinn, and of the eman­ci­pat­ed chil­dren, Isaac and Rosa—reads: “The pro­ceeds from the sale of these Pho­tographs will be devot­ed exclu­sive­ly to the edu­ca­tion of col­ored peo­ple in the Depart­ment of the Gulf, now under the com­mand of Major-Gen­er­al Banks.” These two cards rep­re­sent one con­tem­po­rary inter­pre­ta­tion of the goals of the war: on the one hand, to end the out­rage of slav­ery per­pe­trat­ed on men like Wil­son Chinn (who is, by the way, the same Wil­son as in Fig­ure 12), and, on the oth­er, to right a his­tor­i­cal injus­tice by giv­ing the lib­er­at­ed slaves a future as pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens of the nation. The third image is more ambigu­ous. No mak­er takes cred­it for it, as the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Kim­ball does on the oth­er two. The pho­to­graph depicts two youths in hor­ren­dous­ly tat­tered rags. They are almost cer­tain­ly contrabands—slaves who have tak­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty of war to escape from their mas­ters to seek refuge with the advanc­ing Union armies. Beneath the por­trait some­one has writ­ten in pen­cil, “All men are cre­at­ed equal.” This direct quo­ta­tion from the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence seems to sup­port the abo­li­tion­ist posi­tion on the war—until one turns the card over and reads fur­ther: “This is not exag­ger­at­ed in the least—: not one out of ten of the nig­gers here, who have run away from their mas­ters (and there are thou­sands of them) can boast of such good clothes. Shove them into the army, I say, and let them do the fight­ing in this hot Depart­ment.” This was prob­a­bly writ­ten by a Union sol­dier who bought the card at the front from a camp mer­chant and sent it home in the mail. His cap­tion about “all men” being cre­at­ed equal is at best dark­ly iron­ic; he clear­ly refus­es to accept equal­i­ty with these unfor­tu­nates, there­by repu­di­at­ing the ide­al­is­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of the Amer­i­can found­ing as tru­ly uni­ver­sal­is­tic. While Fred­er­ick Dou­glass want­ed for­mer slaves to fight to affirm and con­firm their dig­ni­ty and equal­i­ty as cit­i­zens, this anony­mous writer wants them to fight pure­ly because he sees them as expendable—and pre­cise­ly because he deems them beneath human dig­ni­ty. This is the trag­ic and endur­ing con­tra­dic­tion of race as rep­re­sent­ed in ante­bel­lum pho­tographs: the same image can arouse at once pity and right­eous indig­na­tion or con­tempt and arro­gant dis­missal. Per­haps it is too much to ask for an image alone to con­quer the prej­u­dices that we bring to bear in our see­ing. Con­sid­er this tin­type pro­duced around the end of the Civ­il War peri­od: it depicts a grin­ning white man in black­face (fig. 19). Fig. 19. Hath­away: sub­ject unknown, gem tin­type in paper mat, c. 1865. Col­lec­tion of Gre­go­ry Fried.  Although the Jim Crow char­ac­ter as a fea­ture of min­strel shows became pop­u­lar in the gen­er­a­tion before the Civ­il War, ear­ly pho­to­graph­ic images of peo­ple in black­face are quite rare. Of course, min­strel­sy “sees” the dark­ness of the African com­plex­ion. But by appro­pri­at­ing that com­plex­ion and super­im­pos­ing it upon a white face—whose white­ness the view­er is nev­er real­ly meant to forget—all the par­tic­i­pants in the per­for­mance of min­strel­sy, both actors and view­ers alike, attempt to make invis­i­ble the human dig­ni­ty of the tru­ly black faces who share their world and whose pres­ence calls out for equality.The Civ­il War end­ed slav­ery, as Dou­glass had hoped, but Recon­struc­tion failed to give for­mer slaves the civic equal­i­ty that Dou­glass believed the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence required as due to all human beings. Instead, there descend­ed the long night of Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion, enforced by the ter­ror of lynch­ing.

Was Fred­er­ick Dou­glass naive to hope for a rev­e­la­tion of human dig­ni­ty from pho­tog­ra­phy? Only if we believe that the fail­ures of the past must be our fail­ures, too. We can look care­ful­ly at these por­traits. We can search in them for the echoes of human pres­ence. We can affirm, cel­e­brate, and restore the hid­den, the neglect­ed, and the anony­mous. In this way, their past can be our present. And our future. Dou­glass said that we can “see what ought to be by the reflec­tion of what is, and endeav­or to remove the con­tra­dic­tion,” and sure­ly it is not too late for ide­al­ism like that. We are still the pic­ture-mak­ing ani­mal that can envi­sion a future by see­ing the present clear­ly in reflec­tion on the past.


The author wish­es to thank his col­league and friend, Greg French, for per­mis­sion to employ so many images from his col­lec­tion. This essay orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the online jour­nal Com­mon-place, vol. 2, no. 2, Jan­u­ary 2002, and is reprint­ed here with per­mis­sion.

Fur­ther Read­ing:

See F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Def­i­n­i­tion (Uni­ver­si­ty Park, Pen­nys­lva­nia, 1991);  Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, “Life Pic­tures,” holo­graph dat­ed 1861, in The Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Papers, Library of Con­gress, micro­film acces­sion no. 16377, reel 14, frames 394–412; Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, “Pic­tures and Progress,” in John W. Blassingame, ed., The Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Papers, ser. 1, vol. 3 (New Haven, 1979–92); Mer­ry A. For­res­ta and John Wood, eds., Secrets of the Dark Cham­ber: The Art of the Amer­i­can Daguerreo­type (Wash­ing­ton, DC, 1995); O. Hen­ry Mace, Col­lec­tors’ Guide to Ear­ly Pho­tographs, 2d ed. (Iola, Wis­con­sin, 1999); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Black­face Min­strel­sy and the Amer­i­can Work­ing Class (New York, 1993); Beau­mont Newhall, The Daguerreo­type in Amer­i­ca, 3d ed. (New York, 1976), and The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy, 5th ed. (New York, 1994); John Stauf­fer, “Race and Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy: Willie Robert Mid­dle­brook and the Lega­cy of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass,” in John Wood, ed., The Jour­nal of Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy: Cul­ture and Crit­i­cism (Brew­ster, Mass­a­chu­setts, n.d.); Col­in West­er­beck, “Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Choos­es His Moment” in Susan F. Rossen, ed., African Amer­i­cans in Art (Chica­go, 1999).