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By the Reflection of What Is

Zoe Trodd, John Stauffer | Liveright | November 10, 2015 | 5,654 words

On the aesthetics, performance, and “majestic wrath” of Frederick Douglass, the most-photographed American of the nineteenth century.

Posted inNonfiction, Story

By the Reflection of What Is

On the aesthetics, performance, and “majestic wrath” of Frederick Douglass, the most-photographed American of the nineteenth century.
Plate 2. Unknown photographer, July–August 1843.

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd | Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American| Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 22 minutes (5,654 words)

The following excerpt appears courtesy of Liveright Publishing.

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Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of civil war, he wrote more extensively on photography than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” to the war and wanted a speech only on “this mighty struggle.” He frequented photographers’ studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could. As a result of this passion, he also became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.

It may seem strange, if not implausible, to assert that a black man and former slave wrote more extensively on photography, and sat for his portrait more frequently, than any of his American peers. But he did. We know this because Douglass penned four separate talks on photography (“Lecture on Pictures,” “Life Pictures,” “Age of Pictures,” and “Pictures and Progress”), whereas Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Boston physician and writer who is generally considered the most prolific Civil-War era photo critic, penned only three. We have also identified, after years of research, 160 separate photographs of Douglass, as defined by distinct poses rather than multiple copies of the same negative. By contrast, scholars have identified 155 separate photographs of George Custer, 128 of Red Cloud, 127 of Walt Whitman, and 126 of Abraham Lincoln. Ulysses S. Grant is a contender, but no one has published the corpus of Grant photographs; one eminent scholar (Harold Holzer) has estimated 150 separate photographs of Grant. Although there are some 850 total portraits of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show, and 650 of Mark Twain, no one has analyzed how many of these are distinct poses, or photographs as opposed to engravings, lithographs, and other non-photographic media. Moreover, Cody and Twain were a generation younger, and many if not most of their portraits were taken after 1900, when the Eastman Kodak snapshot had transformed the medium, bringing photography “within reach of every human being who desires to preserve a record of what he sees,” as Kodak declared. In the world, the only contemporaries who surpass Douglass are the British Royal Family: there are 676 separate photographs of Princess Alexandra, 655 of the Prince of Wales, 593 of Ellen Terry, 428 of Queen Victoria, and 366 of William Gladstone.

Douglass’s passion for photography, however, has been largely ignored. He is, perhaps, most popularly remembered as one of the foremost abolitionists, and the preeminent black leader, of the nineteenth century. History books have also celebrated his relationship with President Lincoln, the fact that he met with every subsequent president until his death in 1895, and that he was the first African American to receive a federal appointment requiring Senate approval. His three autobiographies (two of them bestsellers), which helped transform the genre, are still read today. Yet, because his photographic passion has been almost completely forgotten, historians have missed an important question: why would a man who devoted his life to ending slavery and racism and championing civil rights be so in love with photography?

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