In Donald Trump’s Black History Month remarks — so rambling that McSweeney’s published them unedited as humor — the President seemed to have an only vague idea of Frederick Douglass as a person. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed,” he said, suggesting that he thought Douglass, who died in 1895, may still be alive. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, when asked for clarification on this comment, said: “Well I think there was contributions. I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made and I think that through a lot of the actions and statements that he is going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
So the administration’s grasp of abolitionist history is hazy at best. Yet in a country with an elected leader who is so obsessed with his self-image as portrayed by media (see the unnecessarily drawn out denialist preening about his inauguration crowd photographs), considering Douglass’s thoughts on the public perception of images and the truth of photography are as relevant as ever. As explored in the current exhibition Picturing Frederick Douglass: The Most Photographed American of the 19th Century at the Museum of African American History in Boston, which follows the 2015 book Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, Douglass was photographed in the 1800s more than any other American. There are 160 known photographs of Douglass, from just after he escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, to his death bed in 1895. (Abraham Lincoln, in comparison, has 126 known photographs.)
“The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago,” Douglass once noted. Why was photography so important to Douglass, that he sat for studio portrait after studio portrait when the technology was still so new? And each image, whether daguerreotype or ambrotype, as the medium progressed, was almost identical: Douglass in a suit with a white collar, eyes facing the camera, rarely smiling, with none of the zany Victorian backdrops and tricks that were popular at the time. Abigail Cain wrote for Artsy last week that with every photograph “he could present America with an additional image of blackness that contradicted the prevailing racist stereotypes.”
In other words, he would not be the caricature of a black man that pervaded American visual culture, with its 19th-century minstrels and “happy slaves.” Despite his belief that the camera could inspire a public recognition of his humanity, with its “moral and social influence,” he also understood photography’s objectivity, writing about it far earlier than many theorists. He stated, “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.”
The photographs of Douglass remain striking, with his solemn, open eyes, later framed by graying and then white hair. Douglass was an incredible orator and author; here, in these images, is a quiet defiance that speaks as loud as his words.