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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.



Frederick Douglass and the Progress of Photography

By Donna M. Wells


A very pleasing feature of our pictorial relations is the very easy terms upon which all may enjoy them. The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies and even royalty itself could not purchase fifty years ago. Formerly, the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great. But now, like education and a thousand other blessings brought to us by the advancing march of civilization, such pictures, are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society.—Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress” [speech], 1863.


Frederick Douglass had the unique opportunity to experience the discovery of photography in 1839 and its further development in the nineteenth century as a formidable form of communication. Douglass was probably the most photographed African American of the nineteenth century. As a critic, and as a frequent subject of photographers and artists, he often commented on the portrayal of African Americans. He discovered early that photography had the power to redefine the often stereotypical African American image.

In a speech titled “The Negro as Man,” probably written in the mid-1850s, Douglass criticizes the way in which Blacks were portrayed by illustrators in popular newspapers like Harper’s Weekly and in scientific studies of the world’s races. “The Negro,” he wrote, “is pictured with features distorted, lips exaggerated-forehead low and depressed-and the whole countenance made to harmonize with the popular idea of Negro ignorance, degradation and imbecility.” While promoting the ability of the photograph to capture, what he terms the true likeness, Douglass’ speeches, newspaper editorials, and correspondence also record his responses to the uses, and often abuses, by scientists and artists in their portrayal of African Americans.

In 1848, Douglass reviewed Wilson Armistead’s A Tribute for the Negro, which includes biographies and illustrated portraits of prominent individuals of African descent. The illustration of Douglass portrays him as a youthful, well-groomed, smiling young man. Douglass criticizes the drawing of himself, commenting that the expression was “much more kindly and amiable expression, than is generally thought to characterize the face of a fugitive slave.” In other words, Douglass felt that portraiture should reflect a person’s true character and experience. In comparison, the engraving used in Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom [1850?] illustrates the control that Douglass sought to have over how he wished to be portrayed. The engraving, drawn from the earliest commercial photograph known as the daguerreotype, portrays Douglass as solemn, angry and somewhat defiant. What Armistead could not capture with pen and ink, Douglass made evident with the camera.

In several lectures given by Douglass between 1861 and 1863, he is even more philosophical about the portrayal of African Americans. In this series of lectures, he praises the invention of photography as an equalizer, making portraits accessible across color and class lines. Douglass truly believed that photography could change negative opinions about African Americans.

Source: Howard University Archives

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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

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“True Pictures”

Frederick Douglass on the Promise of Photography By Gregory Fried, Suffolk University


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 160 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 of 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 a day’s wages, even a mill worker could confirm her dignity and make her bid for immortality.

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The ambrotype—is a photograph that creates a positive image on a sheet of glass using the wet plate collodion processIn the United States, ambrotypes first came into use in the early 1850s. The wet plate collodion process was invented just a few years before that by Frederick Scott Archer, but ambrotypes used the plate image as a positive, instead of a negative. In 1854, James Ambrose Cutting of Boston took out several patents relating to the process and may be responsible for coining the term “ambrotype.” . . .Many ambrotypes were made by unknown photographers, such as this American example of a Union soldier with his family, circa 1863-65. Because of their fragility ambrotypes were held in folding cases much like those used for daguerreotypesWikipedia

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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 which 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 calls “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, to 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 paint brush 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 that the publication in 1845 of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself made Douglass a national and then an international celebrity. [See photo above left.] This austere portrait 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. . . .

Source: Mirror of Race

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Photography was the most popular cultural phenomenon in nineteenth-century America. Americans had an exuberant love affair with the photograph, and its popularity surpassed that of all print media by the Civil War. The advertiser Frederick R. Barnard is famous for saying that “One picture is worth ten thousand words” (Printers’ Ink, 10 March 1927, p. 114). But he was only giving authorship to a quip that many Americans were already repeating in 1839, when photography was invented. . . .

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) in particular wrote more eloquently on the photograph than virtually any other American before the Civil War. He sat for his “likeness” whenever he could and had his portrait taken at least as many times as Walt Whitman, the poetic reformer who is legendary for visually creating and re-creating himself.

Douglass believed that “true” art could transcend racial barriers. A good part of his fame rested on his public-speaking and writing talents. But he also relied heavily on portrait photography and the picture-making process in general to create an authentic and intelligent black persona. He knew that his fame and influence could spread more quickly through his portraits than through his voice, and he continually sought to control how he appeared in his portraits.

For Douglass, the truthfulness of the daguerreo-type prevented the distortions and exaggerations that came from the hands of whites. He wrote two separate speeches on “pictures” in which he celebrated photography and praised Daguerre as “the great discoverer of modern times, to whom coming generations will award special homage” (“Pictures”). Because of Daguerre’s invention, he said, “we have pictures, true pictures, of every object which can interest us”:

Men of all conditions and classes can now see themselves as others see them and as they will be seen by those [who] shall come after them. What was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and greats 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. (“Pictures”)

The photograph and accurate renditions or sympathetic engravings of it became his medium of choice for representing himself visually. For Douglass, Daguerre had turned the world into a gallery of “true pictures,” elevating ex-slaves and servants to the level of kings.

Yet the democratizing aspect of photography was only one reason why he thought photographs contributed to the cause of abolition and equal rights. He well knew that most Americans, including slaveholders and proslavery sympathizers, were in love with the photograph. The other reason was that photography inspired the picture-making process in general, and in his mind all humans sought accurate representations of both material reality and of an unseen spiritual world.

This affinity for pictures was what distinguished humans from animals: “Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures” (“Pictures”). Emphasizing the humanity of all humans was central to Douglass’s reform vision, as all but the most radical of Americans defended inequality and racial hierarchies on the grounds that black slaves and their descendants were fundamentally different from other humans.

Douglass attacked these racist arguments by championing the “truthfulness” of the photograph and stressing the picture-making proclivity of all humans. By doing so he emphasized humanity’s common origins and the faculty of imagination over reason. The “full identity of man with nature,” he said, “is our chief distinction from all other beings on earth and the source of our greatest achievements.” While “dogs and elephants are said to possess” the capacity for reason, only humans seek to re-create nature and portray both the “inside soul” and the “outside world” through such “artificial means” as the photograph. Making pictures requires imagination, and Douglass quoted the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson to argue that the realm of the “imagination” is the “peculiar possession and glory of man.” The power of the imagination is “a sublime, prophetic, and all-creative power.”

Imagination could be used to create a public persona in the form of a photograph or engraving. It could also be used to usher in a new world of equality, without slavery and racism. The power of the imagination links humans to “the Eternal sources of life and creation.” It allows them to appreciate pictures as accurate representations of some greater reality, and it helps them to realize their sublime ideals in an imperfect world. As Douglass aptly put it:

Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture makers and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction” (“Pictures”).

In the speech “Pictures and Progress,” he even went so far as to suggest that “the moral and social influence of pictures” is more important in shaping national culture than “the making of its laws (p. 456).

In their fiction, Douglass and other abolitionist writers tapped into Americans’ love affair with daguerreotypes in order to inspire empathic awareness between readers and African Americans. In The Heroic Slave (1853), Douglass’s only work of fiction and the first published African American novella, the black hero, Madison Washington, is “daguerreotyped on” the “memory” of his friend and white protagonist, Mr. Listwell (p. 45).

Similarly Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) “daguerreotype[s]” her hero Uncle Tom “for our readers” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852; p. 68). Daguerreotyping a black character was a common trope in abolitionist narration. It conveyed more than physical description or even photographic memory, for a daguerreotype was thought to penetrate the perceiver’s soul as well as his mind. Americans saw God’s work in the daguerreotype. It was more than a mere picture; rather, it contained part of the body and soul of the subject. Daguerreotyping a black character for white viewers (or readers) was a way for authors to break down racial barriers and achieve spiritual connectedness, and equality, between blacks and whites. . . .



Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. 1853. In Ronald T. Takaki, Violence in the Black Imagination: Essays and Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Douglass, Frederick. “Pictures.” Holograph. n.d. [c. late 1864]. Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, and on microfilm.

Douglass, Frederick. “Pictures and Progress.” 3 December 1861. In The Frederick Douglass Papers, series 1, vol. 3, edited by John W. Blassingame. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Trachtenberg, Alan, ed. Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island, 1980.

Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Stauffer, John. “Daguerreotyping the National Soul: The Portraits of Southworth and Hawes, 1843-1860.” Prospects 22 (1997): 6907.

Source: enotes

Blue Note—A Story of Modern Jazz

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#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly  

Derrick Bell Law Rights Advocate  Dies at 80

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The Black Hearts of Men

Radical Abolitionists and The Transformation of Race

By John Stauffer

John Stauffer’s new volume  The Black  Hearts of Men introduces us to four nineteenth-century civil rights activists who attempted to live as if the future they needed had already come.  And hence Stauffer’s study reminds us that the future of cross-racial and cross-cultural alliances may depend upon remembering that such alliances have had an honorable past, one that allowed individuals to transcend such political constructs as race, gender, class, age, or the other boundaries created by societies. Stauffer’s study, an intertwined biography of four men–two white, two black–recounts, in its basic story line, the events and experiences that led them to found a political party based upon their Christian beliefs concerning the necessity of bringing about a new future for American slavery, race relations, and democracy. Convening a small conference in Syracuse, New York, in the summer of 1855, Gerrit Smith, James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown founded the Radical Abolition Party, which lasted five years, and polled a few thousand votes in its various political campaigns between 1855 and 1860.

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Pictures and Progress

Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity

Edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith

Pictures and Progress explores how, during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, prominent African American intellectuals and activists understood photography’s power to shape perceptions about race and employed the new medium in their quest for social and political justice. They sought both to counter widely circulating racist imagery and to use self-representation as a means of empowerment. In this collection of essays, scholars from various disciplines consider figures including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois as important and innovative theorists and practitioners of photography. In addition, brief interpretive essays, or “snapshots,” highlight and analyze the work of four early African American photographers. Featuring more than seventy images, Pictures and Progress brings to light the wide-ranging practices of early African American photography, as well as the effects of photography on racialized thinking.

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A History of the Black Press By Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II

In this work, Dr. Wilson chronicles the development of black newspapers in New York City and draws parallels to the development of presses in Washington, D.C., and in 46 of the 50 United States. He describes the involvement of the press with civil rights and the interaction of black and nonblack columnists who contributed to black- and white-owned newspapers. . . . Through reorganization and exhaustive research to ascertain source materials from among hundreds of original and photocopied documents, clippings, personal notations, and private correspondence in Dr. Pride’s files, Dr. Wilson completed this compelling and inspiring study of the black press from its inception in 1827 to 1997.

This is a major and noteworthy contribution to scholarship on the African American press. As Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam concludes in the foreword, “Pride and Wilson’s comprehensive history is a lasting tribute to the men and women within the black press of both the past and the present and to those who will make it what it will be in the future.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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