PICTURES AND PROGRESS
EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE MAKING OF AFRICAN AMERICAN IDENTITY
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
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"A More Perfect Likeness" FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE IMAGE OF THE NATION
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union ... —Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
Born a slave, Frederick Douglass paid particular attention to photography. Throughout his life, he sat for numerous photographic portraits and circulated them as widely as possible. He also wrote a number of articles and lectures on the subject. His ideas about the uses of photography are different from those articulated by many of his contemporaries, who were chiefly engaged by how well the camera reflected and cemented existing social relations. Like others of his generation, Douglass was interested in pictures of family sentiment, but at his most intense he looked to photography for kindling rather than for kinship. During slavery, Douglass heard in the click of the shutter a promise of the shackle's release. If black people could appropriate by means of the camera the power of objectification that slavery wielded, Douglass perceived that photography would become an agent of radical social change. After emancipation, Douglass thought photography could be a tool for remaking the American imagination. Such photography was a visionary force, offering an important avenue for change.
Scholars of photography have only recently begun to attend seriously to Douglass's contributions to the theory of photography. Most of what Douglass wrote on photography has not been widely read; much has not yet been published but remains in manuscript form in the Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress. This current book is a crucial contribution to addressing that oversight. In the present chapter I trace some of what is to be discovered about Douglass's ideas of photography by comparing his published lecture of 1861, "Pictures and Progress," with his major revision of that lecture believed to have taken place circa 1865, which still exists only in manuscript form and is undated. In particular, I believe that by closely reading and comparing each piece of writing we can see how Douglass is in conversation with Lincoln over the image of the black man and the image of the American Union. Photography is central to that conversation. Each lecture contains a timely response to one of Lincoln's inaugural addresses. In the first, written at the outset of the American Civil War, Douglass is troubled by Lincoln's hesitation to arm black troops. He proposes that the new technology of photography humanizes the image of the enslaved so that black men might be more widely seen as suitable recruits to the Union forces. In Douglass's revision of the essay, he encourages Lincoln and the country to anticipate the successful end of the war and turn toward rebuilding the nation. There he tries to describe how photography could now disseminate a prophetic image of the nation. Photography could make a likeness of the "more perfect Union" the Constitution had originally failed to deliver.
This is a distinctly different approach to the potential of photography than the one currently most in vogue among photography scholars. In Camera Lucida (1980; translated into English in 1981), Roland Barthes famously defined the three positions from which many critics today analyze the institutions of photography: that of the Operator of the camera, the Spectator of the photograph, and the Spectrum (or target) of the image. But in effect, in his pre- and post-slavery engagement in the 1860s with Lincoln's inaugural addresses, Douglass excavated a fourth position: that of the Revenant, or one who returns from the dead.
The word revenant derives from the French revenir meaning "to come back," "to come again," "to return." Historically, it has been used to express the uncanny sense of déjà vu of something or someone previously thought to be absent or dead. It also contains within itself the French word reve, or "dream." All are implicated in Douglass's sense of the possibilities of photographic art and technology. Douglass believed that the formerly enslaved could reverse the social death that defined slavery with another objectifying flash: this time creating a positive image of the social life of freedom and proving that African American consciousness had been there all along. For one thing, a motivated photographer could deflect the reifying gaze back upon the oppressor (i.e., return, send back). For another, if trained upon one's own self and people, the camera's unprejudiced gaze could undercut the slave power's ostensible "truth," that African Americans were only fractionally human, by showing a fully realized consciousness (i.e., the uncanny return of the socially repressed). And finally, photographs from around the world could reveal the scope of human similarity across difference, building an awareness of human commonality that had never before reached so deeply into ordinary everyday experience (i.e., the dream). Any one of these interventions would be enriching; all three together would support social revolution. From this vantage, photography sheds the melancholy fixation on death and loss with which Barthes has taught us to imbue it. As an avatar of social progress, the photographic Revenant enlivens the present and hails a better world.
Both Frederick Douglass and Roland Barthes wrote their brilliant accounts of the nature of photography by the light of meditations on death. The death toward which Barthes was looking was individual, the death of his mother, a private loss for which photography was so personal a solace that Barthes would not publish the image he found of his mother in his book about his search for that image. But the death that concerned Douglass was massive, public, and socially transformative. Upward of 20 million had suffered and died under the slave system, and at least 620,000 more people were killed in the war undertaken to end it. Amid such carnage, the position of the Revenant that appeared to Douglass through photography was available to all who would seek an image of a new birth of justice by black inclusion in American society. The potential commonness of this vision, like a leaf of Whitman's grass, gave Douglass hope for national renewal.
"Pictures and Progress"
On December 3, 1861, Frederick Douglass responded to an invitation to give a lecture in the Fraternity Course lecture series at Tremont Temple in Boston with a highly uncharacteristic act. Normally a powerful extemporaneous speaker, this time Douglass read his lecture aloud from a written text—and apologized for so doing. The lecture was about photography. Douglass was an enthusiast of the invention. Americans at the time generally understood photography to be a product of the union of science with nature. To Douglass, this new kind of picture promised to remedy what he saw as badly distorted visual representations of black people made by white artists. As early as 1849 in a review of A Tribute for the Negro in his newspaper, the North Star, he had complained, "Negroes can never have impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white people to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features." He castigated the ways in which illustrators commonly made black people seem a lower order of human: "The Negro 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." In his Tremont Temple address, he emphasized how the invention of photography could be used for unraveling the problem of racist representation.
Praising Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre as the "great father of our modern pictures," Douglass celebrated photography among the other advanced technologies of the age. He placed Daguerre in the company of other prominent inventors, such as Sir Richard Arkwright, James Watt, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Samuel F. B. Morse: "If by means of the all pervading electric fluid Morse has coupled his name with the glory of bringing the ends of the earth together, and of converting the world into a whispering gallery ... [,] Daguerre by the simple but all abounding sunshine has converted the planet into a picture gallery." He argued that the art of mechanical reproduction was a natural phenomenon: "As munificent in the exalted arena of art, as in the radiation of light and heat, the God of day not only decks the earth with rich fruit and beautiful flowers—but studs the world with pictures." And he called attention to the social impact of the accessibility of such an invention: "Daguerreotypes, Ambro-types, Photographs and Electrotypes, good and bad, now adorn or disfigure all our dwellings.... A man who now o'days publishes a book, or peddles a patent medicine and does not publish his face to the world with it may almost claim and get credit for simple modesty.... Next to bad manuscripts, pictures can be made the greatest bores.... They are pushed at you in every house you enter, and what is worse you are required to give an opinion of them."
All these observations initially stayed within received opinion. Douglass along with nearly everyone else at the time espoused without irony a belief in photography's democratizing influence: "Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them. What was once, the exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now within reach of all. The humbled servant girl whose income is but a few shillings per week may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and court royalty, with all its precious treasures purchase fifty years ago." Douglass repeated the common claim that in the United States, "the smallest town now has its picture gallery." With the figure of the "humblest servant girl" he paired another stereotype, the "farmer boy [who] can get a picture for himself and a shoe for his horse at the same time, and for the same price." He observed that vanity fed photography because "most men easily see in themselves points of beauty and excellence, which wholly elude the observation of other men." And he spoke also about the influence of family photographs, especially of the dead, which "bring to mind all that is amiable and good, in the departed, and strengthen the same qualities." At the outset of his lecture Douglass was using the theme of photography to break the ice, trying to relate to the already held opinions of his audience because he would soon have other things to say that would be much less familiar.
About a quarter of the way in, he abruptly changed course, declaring, "But it is not of such pictures that I am here to speak exclusively." Douglass wanted to take the discussion of photography somewhere else. The second anniversary of the execution of John Brown found the country nearly a year into the Civil War that the wily old warrior had sought to ignite. Immediately after Lincoln's election in January, seven Southern states had seceded. In his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Lincoln sought to persuade the South that there was no cause for war, even though Jefferson Davis had already been sworn in two weeks earlier as president of the Confederacy. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," Lincoln stressed in his speech, claiming that, "though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." Particularly, he sought to persuade the Confederacy that he would not interfere with the right to own slaves: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." In quick succession Fort Sumter came under attack and more states left the Union. Douglass was appalled by Lincoln's inaugural speech. He did believe the slaveholder was his enemy, and—the war having finally begun—he felt it was imperative to dedicate it to ending the peculiar institution that Lincoln seemed ready to protect.
Thus as he stood reading about photography before the audience at Tremont Temple on the second anniversary of John Brown's death, Douglass feared for his vision of race and nation. In direct response to Lincoln's remarks nine months earlier, Douglass attacked as many of the arguments of the inaugural address as he could. It was essential to give up on the idea that slavery was legal and "have done with the wild and guilty fantasy that man can hold property in man." Douglass told the audience that the country must "lay the ax at the root of the tree—and hurl the accursed slave system in to the pit from whence it came." He found Lincoln's defense of the Union weak and dangerously conflicted. "While I do not charge—as some have that the Government is conducting the war on peace principles," he said, "it is plain that they are not conducting it on war principles." Chief among Lincoln's mistakes was his failure to enlist Southern slaves as soldiers. This could be fatal to the Union:
We are fighting the Rebels with only one hand when we ought to be fighting them with both. We are recruiting our troops at the north when we ought to be recruiting them at the south. We are striking with our white hand, while our black one is chained behind us. We are catching slaves instead of arming them. We are repelling our natural friends—to win the friendship of our natural enemies. We are endeavoring to heal over the rotten cancer, instead of cutting out its death dealing roots and fibres. We seem ... a little more concerned for the safety of slavery than for the slavery of the Republic.... The Government at Washington has shouldered all the burden of slavery in the prosecution of the war—and given to its enemies all its benefits.
Douglass found a mechanical analogy that explained how time itself was out of joint. The country was like a broken clock whose machinery needed to be fixed: "The cause [of our troubles] is deeper down than sections, slaveholders or abolitionists. These are but the hands of the clock. The moving machinery is behind the face. The machinery moves not because of the hands, but the hands because of the machinery. To make the hands go right you must make the machinery go right. The trouble is fundamental."
But change was inevitable. Nature herself, "a picture of progress," was a "rebuke to moral stagnation." In the age of invention, "nothing stands today where it stood yesterday ... there is no standing still, nor can be." Political as well as technological realities were shifting. John Brown himself was an example of this process, "and the faith for which he nobly died [was] rapidly becoming the saving faith of the Nation." Two years earlier, John Brown's own son was "hunted in Ohio like a felon," but now "he is a captain under the broad seal of the U.S. Government." Meanwhile, "those who came to torment" John Brown in his jail cell, "stretched on his pallet of straw, covered with blood, marred by sabre gashes in the hands of his enemies, not expecting to recover from his wounds," were now themselves accused of "treason and rebellion."
Photography, an emblem of human progress, was another such rebuke. Underlying Douglass's attack on Lincoln's inaugural address is a theory of photography as revolutionary vision. For Douglass, the temporizing of Lincoln's defense of the legality of slavery in the slave states was just as much a distortion of reality as the grotesque images that white artists made of black faces and bodies, rendering them unacceptable to serve in the armed forces. Photographic seeing could help address that problem because it could correct the distorted representations of black manhood that put the Union at risk. Viewed correctly, black men would come to life in the white imagination, and Lincoln would find the soldiers the Union needed to win the war and vindicate the government.
Photographic seeing would also address the problem of "moral stagnation." Douglass was sure that eventually, slavery would be destroyed, in part by this very nineteenth-century scientific progress of which photography was, itself, a symbol: "In every bar of rail road iron a missionary—In every locomotive a herald of progress—the startling scream of the Engine—and the small ticking sound of the telegraph are alike prophecies of hope to the philanthropist, and warnings to the systems of slavery, superstition and oppression to get themselves away to the mirky shades of barbarism." A powerful new form of communication like the train and the telegraph, photography would help "dissolve the granite barriers of arbitrary power, bring the world into peace and unity, and at last crown the world with just [ice,] Liberty, and brotherly kindness." In his inaugural address, Lincoln was standing in the way of progress, and "he who despairs of progress despises the hope of the world—and shuts himself out from the chief significance of existence—and is dead while he lives." Photography could bring him back from this despair as a Revenant.
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