The Photographic Events of American Abolitionism

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:50 AM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
Matthew Fox-Amato, Washington University in St. Louis
My paper explores how early photography helped produce a sense of “event-ness” for American abolitionists. During the 1840s and 1850s, bulky cameras and slow exposure times made photography a poor tool to visualize scenes of slavery’s violence – as abolitionists had long done with other visual forms such as broadsides and lithographs. Instead, they found in photography a new way to picture themselves. I focus in particular on two largely unstudied phenomena: photographs of activists who protested – and directly responded to – the Fugitive Slave Law, and those of slaves who escaped along the Underground Railroad. These images and their social uses reveal important ways in which activists documented and shared the news of their movement, constructed visions of community, and heightened the perception that political action was happening. By looking at the history of photography, I illuminate the significance of visual events within abolitionism as I suggest new pathways for historians to grasp the lived experience of social movements in the age of photography.
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