The Abolitionistís Camera: Frederick Douglass and Photography

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:50 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham
Zoe Trodd will discuss newly discovered photographs that reveal Douglass to be the most photographed American of the 19th century—a status previously accorded to Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman or General Custer. She will position the 160+  photographs as a counterpart to Douglass’s writings and speeches, and demonstrate that as Douglass wrote his autobiographies, he also crafted multiple versions of his life and self in pictures. Emphasizing both Douglass’s visual evolution and his consistency of representation across several decades, she will describe a parallel tradition of self-depiction to the one that he began on behalf of black autobiography in the Narrative (1845), and she will show that he used his commissioned and self-directed portraits to remake himself, create a black public persona and reinvent black masculinity. She will also argue that Douglass recognized photography’s potential role in social reform and employed the camera as a weapon in the abolitionist struggle. Seeing photography as a democratic and accurate medium, and believing it was a crucial aid to his vision of a free, democratic and egalitarian society, Douglass used it to out-citizen white citizens, counter racist iconography, and establish the slave’s right to freedom and the African American’s right to equality. She will share and analyze photographs of Douglass by Southerners, immigrants, a woman and several African Americans; images of Douglass with fellow reformers and photographs taken of Douglass by other reformers, arguing that these images reveal photography was a tool of reform in the nineteenth century (rather than a tool of the oppressive state).