Possessive Pictures: Photography, the Body, and Slavery in the United States

Friday, January 3, 2014: 11:10 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Matthew Amato, University of Southern California
            Past scholars have shown how southern whites bolstered white supremacy by circulating lynching photographs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.1 This paper reveals how the widespread southern fusion of racial power and photography actually began during slavery.  In the 1840s, slaveholders across the South began commissioning portraits of their slaves from itinerant and urban-studio daguerreans.  This paper examines the visuality and social uses of many little-studied slave photographs, stressing how they gave slave owners unique and portable surrogates of enslaved bodies.  But it also demonstrates how photography opened up opportunities for bondspeople, who found ways to occasionally purchase, obtain, and use photographs of themselves.  In doing so, this paper argues that photography expanded the possessive capacities of mastery as it simultaneously gave enslaved people new forms of self-possession. 

1On lynching photography, see, for starters, Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

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