Portrait Photography Through the Lens of Fredrick Douglass



HARTFORD, Conn. — While you first enter my grandfather’s small however vigorous condominium in Harlem, two black-and-white images on the entrance of his lounge illustrate his desires and legacy. The highest one, taken by Russell Lee in 1941, exhibits 5 Black boys wearing fits sitting atop a automobile on Easter morning on the South Facet of Chicago. Under that could be a photograph of my grandfather along with his school Kappa fraternity brothers in New York Metropolis, wanting dapper in fits. After I requested what the images meant to him, my grandfather mentioned, “The younger brothers paved the way in which for these to observe.”

These two photographs evoke Frederick Douglass’s use of the photographic picture to “erase the astonishingly giant storehouse of racist stereotypes that had been amassed within the American archive of anti-Black imagery,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in his 2015 essay titled “Fredrick Douglass’s Digicam Obscura: Representing the Anti-Slave ‘Clothed and In Their Personal Type.’” 

Gates, additionally the host of Finding Your Roots on PBS, co-curated the exhibition I Am Seen … Therefore, I Am: Isaac Julien and Frederick Douglass along with fellow Harvard College professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. On view on the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Artwork in Hartford, Connecticut, the exhibition builds upon Douglass’s argument in his 1861-to-1864 lectures on the facility of photographs.

George Kendall Warren, “Frederick Douglass” (1879), albumen print on Cupboard Card at The Amistad Middle for Artwork & Tradition, Hartford, Connecticut (picture courtesy the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Artwork)

The present incorporates daguerreotypes from the gathering of Greg French, a supplier of vintage images, in addition to quotes from Douglass’s speeches and artwork by British set up artist Isaac Julien. Douglass’s portraits and different daguerreotypes on view counter the racist photographs of Black People that have been introduced in mainstream media within the nineteenth century. Douglass sat for 160 portraits, arguably changing into some of the photographed Black American males of his time.

Julien’s 2019 movie Classes of the Hour is a 10-screen video set up impressed by three of Douglass’s speeches, “Classes of the Hour” (1894), “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” (1852), and “Lecture on Footage” (1861). The movie takes the viewers on a journey with Douglass to Washington, London, and Scotland, the place he spent six months making an attempt to flee those that wished to enslave him once more after he printed his memoir, Narrative of the Lifetime of Frederick Douglass (1845). Julien mixed clips of latest protest footage and pictures to convey the present-day viewers into Douglass’s world. 

“Douglass was referred to as the ‘consultant coloured man’ in the USA, and that definition of illustration was taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote about ‘consultant Ben,’ that means that the very best {that a} folks or a tradition can produce and the way they’re the exemplars, the epitome of human chance and excellence,” Gates mentioned in an interview with Hyperallergic.

“Douglass definitely didn’t thoughts being referred to as the consultant coloured man; he had a wholesome ego,” he continued. “So this notion of illustration is a pun. It begins off as a literary idea with Emerson, however then Douglass transports it over into the realm of the visible explicitly.”

Co-curator Sarah Elizabeth Lewis added in an interview that she aimed to convey the viewers into Douglass’s visible realm with “over 100 daguerreotypes of Black People earlier than the abolition of slavery dressed superbly, understanding that they have been presenting themselves in historical past as a means into Douglass’s speech.”

The images, she famous, are intentionally introduced with out captions, as if saying: “Take a look at all that we don’t find out about our previous.” 

Unknown, “Mom and Kids” (c. 1850), daguerreotype, assortment of Greg French (picture courtesy the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Artwork)
Unknown, “Man with Bugle” (c. 1846), daguerreotype, sixth plate, assortment of Greg French (picture courtesy the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Artwork)

Nevertheless, the digital camera couldn’t seize darkish pores and skin accurately till the Nineteen Eighties, when an improved model of Kodak movie, Kodak Gold, turned out there available on the market.

“I might come to study in a while that Kodak Gold was created after Kodak had obtained complaints, not from Black and Brown households, however from wooden and furnishings producers within the Seventies that have been pissed off that they couldn’t promote their woods. So that they developed a movie emulsion know-how that might seize all of those pores and skin tones,” Lewis mentioned.

“I’ve all the time been excited by illustration, however that was one of many earliest moments I can keep in mind wherein I understood that know-how wasn’t serving us,” she concluded.

Lewis’s initiative Vision and Justice is much more important right now as racism turns into extra pervasive on this nation. Some colleges have banned African-American studies curricula and taught students that Black people benefited from slavery. Just lately, the Nationwide Affiliation for the Development of Coloured Folks (NAACP) issued a travel warning urging Black folks to not journey to Florida, stating that it’s “brazenly hostile towards African People, folks of shade, and LGBTQ+ people.”

In an 1862 lecture titled “Age of Footage,” Douglass mentioned, “Pictorial representations are to the attention and to the creativeness what music, the harmony of candy sounds, is to the ear and coronary heart. They ennoble our style and elevate our affections and encourage the thoughts with prophecies of magnificence and excellence, which can be hidden from us by the garbage of widespread life.”

Douglass discovered this magnificence and excellence in images. So did Julien, and my grandfather.

Isaac Julien, Serenade (Classes of the Hour) (2019), framed {photograph} mounted on aluminum (© Isaac Julien; picture courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro)
Isaac Julien, “The Woman of the Lake,” nonetheless from (Classes of the Hour) (2019), framed {photograph} mounted on aluminum (© Isaac Julien; picture courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro)


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