“The Empty Space / Where Slaves Were Sold”: Slavery, Photography, and the Politics of Memory

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Christopher James Dingwall, University of Chicago
At the turn of the twentieth century, pioneering historians of slavery looked for evidence by turning to commercial photography. Joining the thousands who purchased stereographs and postcards of cotton fields, ex-slaves, and old plantations, Ulrich Phillips, Frederic Bancroft, and W. E. B. Du Bois bought and made photographs of slavery’s remainders and ruins.

While the early historiography of slavery was irrevocably tied to the politics of race and reunion, historians’ written work was shaped by their roles as producers and consumers in a burgeoning visual culture. Phillips collected plantation stereographs from around the South; Du Bois exhibited portraits of “Negro Life” from a Georgia county; and Bancroft took snapshots of former slave auction houses in Southern cities. Strikingly, their photographs did less to document slavery than give visual form to competing ideas about slavery’s “presence” in modernity. Framed by billboards and telegraph wires, for instance, Bancroft’s snapshots of Charleston nearly moved him to poetry:  here was “[t]he empty space / where slaves were sold.”1

By considering the photographic practices of Phillips, Bancroft, and Du Bois, this paper shows how they found in photographs both positive evidence of slavery’s past and less tangible senses of its “presence.” In particular, I will argue that the visual and tactile sense of slavery offered by photographs animated these historians' contrasting conceptions of progress, freedom, and race. Moreover, I will suggest how photographic evidence deepens our understanding of the “politics of memory” as it was shaped by the material relations and aesthetic senses of a mass consumer society.

1Annotation on back of photograph no. 12 (end of box, unsorted), in box 87, Frederic Bancroft Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

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